Sunday, August 24, 2014

Walking for the cure

The question of purpose hangs over Tracks, an adaptation of Robyn Davidson’s eponymous book, which chronicles the author’s 1977 National Geographic-sponsored trek across 1,700 miles of Australian desert with four camels and a pooch. Davidson seems above all to desire solitude and escape from a so-called civilization corrupted by consumerism, sexism, racism and violence. We come to understand Davidson is also reckoning with childhood trauma. When asked point blank why she’s undertaking such a daunting, if not downright absurd journey, she claims that she wants to prove that any ordinary person can do what she’s doing. Yet it’s clear that Davidson is anything but ordinary. Though better prepared for her expedition than Timothy Treadwell (the subject of Werner Herzog’s excellent Grizzly Man) or Chris McCandless (the subject of Jon Krakauer’s masterful book Into the Wild and Sean Penn’s woefully naïve cinematic adaptation of the same name), Davidson comes to realize that there finally is no way to prepare for something so taxing on both body and psyche. What Tracks implies is that the true purpose of such a journey can only be revealed by doing it.

Similarly, you need to see Tracks to get a deeper sense of what it’s really about, and why it’s really quite good. Written by Marion Nelson and directed by John Curran (a curious director whose credits include The Painted Veil and Stone), the film’s flaws are exposed from the outset: a needless voice-over that feels like an emotional buffer rather than a way of heightening our connection to Davidson; and over-explanatory honey-hued flashbacks to childhood idyll. Davidson’s demands the evocation of loneliness and a sense of time’s passage—it requires an investment of time and attention. So the fact that the second half of Tracks, which clocks in at a reasonable 110 minutes, is considerably stronger than the first strikes me as legitimate.

Some highlights: Mandy Walker’s stunning cinematography eschews corny aerial splendour in favour of low-level vistas of heat-vapour and impossible expanse that feels more first-person than the alternative. The recurring appearance of Rick Smolan (a nicely measured performance from Adam Driver), the American photographer whose documentation of Davidson’s journey clearly played an enormous role in the formation of Tracks’ aesthetics, initially seems like a token love interest but becomes something far more interesting: a key to better understanding Davidson’s issues with intimacy and communication and the ways in which even well-intentioned people can violate the cultural dictates of aboriginal people. Speaking of which: Mr. Eddie, the Aboriginal elder played by Rolley Mintuma who serves as guide for part of Davidson’s journey, is easily the most charismatic and enigmatic figure in Tracks.

But I’m saving the best for last. Tracks has been in development for decades, but I’m so happy it took this long to get made for one simple reason: Mia Wasikowska, the young Australian actress who seems to turn up in every other interesting movie I’ve seen of late. Her remarkable work as Davidson feels immersive, a performance devoid of anything ingratiating or mawkish, a starring role without a single moment of winky movie star self-awareness. Davidson is a genuine adventurer, someone willing to do something without certainty of where it will lead, and Wasikowska does right by her subject by approaching the role with the same sense of surrender and attention. She never seems to be playing the end. Instead, she merely takes one step at a time.

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