MOVIE REVIEW: Tracks
"TRACKS"-- 3 STARS
According to the geographically-challenged, the continent of Australia is full of kangaroos, koalas, crocodiles, coral reefs, Fosters beer cans, one Hugh Jackman, one Nicole Kidman, and millions of other "British" people that either look like Paul "Crocodile Dundee" Hogan or sound like the late Steve "Crocodile Hunter" Irwin. The uninformed are missing a great deal about the world's most isolated continent. At its widest points, the land mass equals the distance between Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. This is not a little patch of land, by any means. Outside of the temperate southeast region that contains decadent coastal cities like Sydney and three-fourths of the country's population, over 80% of Australia's immense land area is either arid desert or semi-arid grassland or scrub, much of which is nearly uninhabitable.
In 1977, a single woman named Robyn Davidson, along with her dog and four camels, decided to trek on foot across that barren desert landscape from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. The route was over 1,700 miles and would be about the equivalent of walking from Omaha, Nebraska to the Pacific Ocean. In this country, that's a matter of following a few highways and crossing all sorts of populated areas. In Australia, that journey is unmarked, dangerous, isolated, and devoid of almost any human help or settlement.
"Tracks," the new film directed by John Curran ("Stone," "We Don't Live Here Anymore," and "The Painted Veil"), seeks to tell Robyn Davidson's story of survival, determination, and self-discovery. The film premiered last year at the 2013 Toronto and Venice International Film Festivals, but "Tracks" just recently received a U.S. limited theatrical release and played in Chicago at the AMC River East location before the 50th Chicago International Film Festival took over the place this week. "Alice in Wonderland" teen star Mia Wasikowska, now 24, stars as Davidson and the now-everywhere Adam Driver (appearing in five 2014 films outside of his series regular role on HBO's "Girls") plays Rick Smolan, the National Geographic photographer that chronicles her expedition. Highlighting the rawness of Australia with incredible cinematography and containing a powerful performance from Wasikowska, "Tracks" is very above-average dramatic fare.
Raised outside of broken home where her mother committed suicide and her father passed her off to relatives, Robyn Davidson grew up with an affinity for zoology and biology. In 1975, she moved west from Brisbane to Alice Springs to learn how to tame wild camels with the goal of using them instead of horses or mules to walk across the desert. To tout another fact, Australia has the largest feral population of camels in the world, exceeding 50,000 animals in the wild. By 1977, with a boost of sponsorship from National Geographic, Davidson gathers the resources necessary to start her journey with the contingency that Smolan visit her from time to time to document her travels and experiences.
Davidson estimates that the excursion will take over six months. Bearing limited supplies, her dog, the camels, and a rifle to defend herself, she traces a solitary path across the flat wilderness and soon becomes identified as "The Camel Lady" among rural and Aboriginal locals. Keeping her reasons to herself, "Tracks" becomes the study of not just what this arduous trip entailed physically and historically, but also what the journey did for the psyche and empowerment of Davidson herself as a young woman.
The story of "Tracks" has undergone five failed undertakings to be adapted into a feature film since the 1980's before John Curran stepped in. The most notable attempt was in 1993 when Julia Roberts was attached just three years after "Pretty Woman." For many moviegoers, "Tracks" is going to feel like a less hipster version of "Into the Wild," the American tale of Christopher McCandless's departure from ordinary society to seek isolated living in the Alaskan extreme that was turned into a bestseller by Jon Krakauer and award-winning 2007 film by Sean Penn. The similarities are here, but the differences are unique enough to make this equally-true personal account stand on its own.
Davidson set out on this trek without the desire to document her experiences, unlike the diary-keeping chatterbox McCandless. Also, as aforementioned, this setting is far more isolated and remote than "Into the Wild." That shallow initial depth plays out on-screen with us learning about Davidson's intentions and goals through her limited behavior around others and minor flashback breaks in the narrative that clue us into her troubled youth.
With that kind of withdrawn and introverted point-of-view, Mia Wasikowska gives an almost silent performance as Davidson. The silence is not underdevelopment, but rather restraint and focus to the larger themes at work. A different Hollywood screenwriter would overpack "Tracks" with Chatty Cathy dialogue for the sake of visual exposition or tack on a soul-less voiceover monologue. Wasikowska shows that none of those movie crutches are necessary to fully convey this story's challenging material. The physical demands to take on the harsh Australian outback authentically are obvious, but it is the mental hurdles of portraying this fractured, yet driven and brave character that become the compelling parts of Wasikowska's excellent performance. She is, without a doubt, the biggest reason to appreciate this film.
The second major element of recognition is the grand setting of "Tracks." Director John Curran and cinematographer Mandy Walker, who Baz Luhrmann enlisted for his 2008 epic “Australia,” offer an uncompromising view of the continent’s rural atmosphere comprised of the raw, bleak, tough, and bitter matched with the sprawling, pristine, fragile, and beautiful. The visual scale and detail of the film’s landscape is very impressive and genuine. This end result is far from feeling like a ham-fisted tourism video disguised as a serious film.
Overall, and it must be said, “Tracks” will come across as slow and serious as the character’s walk itself. To its credit, Davidson’s story is told accurately to her real-life and documented account and filmed without the urge to add action for action’s sake. “Adventure” is too strong of an adjective and “plight” is too weak. This is a sit-down film with no need for false crescendos. Her story is strong enough on its own. That vibe is kept low-key thanks to a subtle musical score from first-time feature composer Garth Stevenson that never pushes the boundaries of the story’s intimacy and simplicity. Not everyone is going to be a fan of this kind of methodical film and be left wanting more. That’s fair, but then you would be missing the truism on display. Too many other films like this are ruined by the disingenuous add-ons designed to move the needle.
LESSON #1: THE PERSONAL IMPORTANCE OF A SOLO JOURNEY—In reasons that grow as we learn more about Robyn’s history, this planned trip is very important to her and mixes with Lesson #2. She dedicates so much of her resources, time, planning, and survival on wanting to make this goal happen. She puts life completely on hold. Could we do the same if we wanted in our own lives? One of the most important parts is that she insists on doing this herself. Self-importance and self-worth for something like this cannot be denied or discounted. Our lives are filled with challenges we seek to take on ourselves without help, both good and bad.
LESSON #2: THE PERSONAL MOTIVATION OF A SOLO JOURNEY—Outside of the personal importance of a journey like this, the motivations are equally internalized. The family failures Robyn observed as a child and the memories of her father are large catalysts for her. She plays off a candor of “why not” when asked why she’s embarking on this dangerous quest, but we see that there is definitely something pushing her on the inside. Personal motivation is always necessary for both the small and large solo challenges.
LESSON #3: THE PERSONAL STRENGTH OF A SOLO JOURNEY—When a substantial challenge such as Robyn’s path is ongoing or, later, completed, the end result from all of that physical and mental expenditure is personal strength in both of those areas. Robyn pushes herself to her body’s limits in a place where people have died trying to do what she’s done. In giving her self-importance and internal motivations purpose and drive, the increase of mental personal strength is the bigger victory than even the physical. On a smaller scale, ask any mountain climber or marathon runner and they will tell you the same mental vs. physical challenge that leads to individual personal accomplishment and endowed personal strength.