Great Movies I (almost) missed in 2014 – Tracks (Film Review)

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One of the rather dire problems of Tracks, is that its protagonist, Robyn Davidson (performed by Mia Wasikowska) seeks to escape the patronizing gaze of a humanity that tries to fetishise her, which is the very motivation to make the film. It’s a tricky one, because on the one hand, Tracks is the perfect film to explain a ‘Walkabout’ to a white audience, but at the same time, walkabout is an elusive event that defies any sort of definition white culture can place upon it – and that includes the creative one. So while Tracks does its level best to stay out of Robyn Davidson’s way in her great event of self definition, by the very nature of the cameras gaze, we include ourselves in the act she is running from.

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This point is brought up in the film, where cameras and journalistic interest play the part of intruder but more damagingly, the creator of the definition of who Robyn Davidson becomes. Every moment she is photographed is an intrusion, and we are constantly reminded that in watching Tracks we are intruding on Robyn herself – her history, her present, her story and her personhood. This is why the Aboriginals in the small community object so powerfully to having their photo taken. They know very well the power of the photograph as Rick Smolan (Adam Driver) patronizingly tries to explain to Robyn, as it will turn them into victims and send more well meaning white folk out to rescue them. Robyn, a woman with desire and drive that is difficult to explain, didn’t see the point of trying to explain it, as the listener would perform some act of interpretation directly at odds with how she feels about herself. As Robyn says at the start of the film, “When people ask me why I am walking 2000 miles across a desert, I simply answer Why not?”

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So Tracks then, refers to both the path she follows and the one she leaves behind as it is interpreted by us the viewer, and all the others eyes behind lenses that seek to make some sort of meaning of this extremely intelligent and very unusual woman. The focus on the camera is a very clever way of getting around the primary problem for telling Robyn Davidson’s story, despite her desire to never be on film. This perfectly matches the indigenous Australians perspective while never appropriating their position. The Walkabout ritual (as I understand it) was one reserved for young males who took to the bush to follow the paths or “songlines” of their ancestors, mimicking their great accomplishments while doing so. Robyn Davidson does exactly the same thing, her desire is to follow in her father’s footsteps and mimic his accomplishments. However she doesn’t appropriate the indigenous cultural ritual, rather she never reveals the connection and the press around her are too slow witted to burden her with any questions that may prove uncomfortable from that perspective. The local cultural leaders, and indeed other lonely living white folk wordlessly understand however, and that wordlessness becomes the perfect language. By the end of Tracks, we miraculously understand why Robyn Davidson never wants to answer questions, rarely speaks to anyone and doesn’t want to be filmed.

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Tracks also succeeds in opening Robyn up to an inner journey that manages to both incorporate some obvious psychoanalysis about her historical personal trauma, but even more profoundly connects her to her history and a self that she can be with strength in the world – again, the primary purpose of the Walkabout. Walkabouts (if I can speak about them in broad terms) aren’t about dealing with childhood trauma, though that may be part of your journey, they are a rite of passage and Robyn’s connection to her own personal tragedy becomes more of a connection to herself and therefore all human beings. Robyn Davidson’s primary problem in life is that she is consistently and profoundly misunderstood, and somehow this journey she takes helps her find a way to cope with the isolation that comes from that.

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The subtexts that this leads to are enormous, and this is where Mandy Walker’s astounding cinematography comes in. Yes, Tracks is beautiful, and yes it is exquisitely filmed, but even more than that, it perfectly captures the enormous nothingness of the Australian desert, mirroring all of our emptiness inside. That sounds trite the way I put it there, but Mandy Walker is not the first Australian artist to try to capture the Australian landscape as if it were a character of its own, and the reason for that would probably be better explained by an Indigenous citizen of this country. But Robyn Davidson’s walk to the ocean is not about adventure, it’s not about self discovery, it’s not about all the crazy-ass things that happen to her on the way. It’s about being alone, and allowing the huge expanse of an endless landscape engulf you – falling into life, if you will. It describes, better than words, the large longing that Robyn feels in her journey to another part of herself.

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John Curran, who is not an Australian, directs and it’s gratifying to see he’s done his homework, just as Robyn Davidson does hers in a most entertaining start to the film. Working with Marion Nelson’s adapted screenplay from Davidson’s book, he draws an amazing performance from Mia Wasikowska who I always love but is rarely better than she is here. It’s an amazing, underappreciated performance, which is all the more gripping for its quiet, meandering acceptance of the landscape she finds herself engulfed by. Thank God Julia Roberts, who was originally slated for the role, didn’t pan out.

Tracks is a stunning Australian film. Don’t miss the opportunity to see it. Highly reccommended.

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