The Hunter (15) God Bless America (15)

It goes for the kill but misses the mark

There are two haunting landscapes on view in The Hunter, an odd, intermittently compelling drama from Down Under about a killer and his elusive prey. The first of them is the rocky highlands of Tasmania, an austere, prehistoric-seeming place of misty mountains and straggling forest which even to look upon makes you feel lost. The second is that of Willem Dafoe's face, whose troubled contours and taut cheekbones form a landscape eloquent of its owner's inner struggle. His somewhat otherworldly presence has anchored many a film that might otherwise have popped like a soap-bubble into nothingness.

Dafoe plays Martin, a mercenary hired by a biotech company to hunt down the near-mythical "Tasmanian tiger", whose DNA they want to exploit as a toxin. The film opens with actual footage of the tiger in captivity, a striped doglike creature probably extinct since the 1930s but still rumoured to roam this forbidding wilderness. Martin pretends to be a scientist researching a study on the Tasmanian devil. His natural loner instincts are tested on arriving at the chaotic log cabin that's his billet for the duration: the generator's bust, the water's cold, his greeters are two young kids with no sense of personal space. Sass (Morgana Davies) is a chatterbox to her brother Bike's Trappist-in-waiting (Finn Woodlock) personality, while their mum, Lucy (Frances O'Connor), lies in bed, zonked out from all the tranquillisers she's on. He's going to have to take the household in hand.

Adapted from a novel by Julia Leigh, the film keeps feinting in different directions. There's political tension in the background between the town's loggers and a coven of tree-hugging "greenies"; there's the unsolved mystery of Lucy's tracker husband, vanished into the mountains some months ago; there's the ambiguous intervention of a local bushman (Sam Neill) who's been keeping an eye on the family (and dosing Lucy with those pills). Director Daniel Nettheim doesn't appear quite on top of the material, failing to invest scenes with their proper weight: a menacing face-off between loggers and activists peters out, while Lucy's rejuvenation is managed with a surprising lack of conflict. The meat of the drama is Martin's stalking about the wilderness, his patient setting of traps and his near-feral sense of closeness to nature. Even when nothing is happening you can't tear your eyes off Dafoe's lean, hungry look: if there is a tiger out there, you don't fancy its chances against this guy. The film's rhythm matches the hunter's slow creep, circling ever nearer to revelation. It soon dawns on Martin that someone else is out there and it looks like he's a hunter, too.

Yet just when you think the film will go for the kill, it backs off and hides. Dafoe's moment of truth – his telescopic rifle poised à la De Niro in The Deer Hunter – has a powerful and unexpected outcome, unlike the fates of those around him. There are shocks, but they're revealed in the most puzzling, offhand way. Neill's character is a particular disappointment, his role in the dispute between "progress" and conservation muffled to the point of obscurity. It was good to see O'Connor on screen again (much missed since her star turn in Mansfield Park 12 years ago) but her role is seriously underwritten. Top marks to the landscape, though, shot with wonderful eeriness by Robert Humphreys, and top marksman to Dafoe, carrying much of the film's implication in that gaunt, hunger-artist face.

The most remarkable film of the week is Bobcat Goldthwait's God Bless America, a howl of rage disguised as a wigged-out satire on his native land. Joel Murray plays middle-aged everyman Frank, sitting alone and depressed as a tide of moronic junk pours out of his television set. He's had it up to here with America, its obsession with celebrity and its unthinking reward of "the shallowest, the dumbest, the meanest and the loudest". Next door a baby's non-stop wailing keeps him awake at night. At work his colleagues exchange titbits of TV gossip and laugh about the fat kid who was humiliated for his terrible singing on an American Idol-ish talent show. There's no shame anymore, Frank says, no humility, no kindness: "I just want it all to stop."

Frank is dealt a double whammy. He's fired from his job for sending flowers to the depressed office receptionist (it's construed as harassment); then the headaches he's been having are diagnosed as a brain tumour. About to end it all with a gun to the mouth, he decides instead to take out the people he most hates, starting with a reality-TV "princess" who's just bawled out her parents for buying her the wrong car for her birthday. The murder is witnessed by 16-year-old Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a pert miss who thinks it "awesome" and joins Frank on what becomes a cross-country killing spree.

By this stage the focused fury of the early scenes has disappeared, and taken most of the laughs with it. We breathe a sigh of relief that this odd-couple relationship is chaste, though must suspend our disbelief at the police's failure to stop their joyous homicidal rampage. There's also a confusion in Frank and Roxy's choice of targets. You may understand why they'd want to assassinate a right-wing demagogue or a protester carrying a "GOD HATES FAGS" placard. But Frank also shoots dead three kids who were rude and abusive in the cinema. Aggravating, certainly – but punishable by death? Goldthwait's script, born of a savage moral disgust, makes no distinction between people who "deserve to die" and people who just annoy us.

There's also the unremarked irony of Frank's shrill spoilt brat of a daughter, quite as repellent as any of the kids he's killed. The daughter lives with his estranged wife, but Frank surely bears some responsibility in having allowed her to become this way. A late scene in which he meets a gun dealer is a deliberate nod to Taxi Driver and perhaps an admission that this isn't the best means of dealing with your desperation.

Frank's pained enumeration of all the things wrong with America, however, is hard to fault: "Why have a civilization anymore if we are no longer interested in being civilized?"