Directed by visual maestro John Curran (The Painted Veil), Tracks is a true story based on the 1977 journey of 27-year-old Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska), who one day decides to trade in the comforts of middle-class city life for the dangers of a solo trek across the deserts of western Australian. Hating the thought of becoming another ungrateful cog in the privileged machine, and happiest alone with her dog, Diggity, she spends the two preceding years in Alice Springs, Australia, training camels with the locals in hopes of scoring a few of them to be her pack mules. Alice Springs is also where she first meets Rick Smolan (delicately acted by an underused Adam Driver), a photographer working for TIME at the time who played a vital role in helping to secure funding for her trip. But the money is not without strings—National Geographic assigns Rick to act as photojournalist and will meet up with her at certain spots along the way. He’s enchanted; she’s far from. Hesitantly, she agrees to the arrangement, and with Diggity and four camels in tow, she takes the first step—the hardest part—into the great and deadly unknown.
Davidson’s nearly 2,000-mile hike was featured as a cover story of the March 1978 issue of National Geographic, alongside Smolan’s iconic photos, and became one of the magazine’s most successful stories of its time.
In a never-ending pile of films concerned with psychological exploration and romantic plight and moral flexibility and dramatic human truth, Tracks is by and large a somatic experience. Instead of examining like a neurotic Jewish squirrel life’s many situational directions, then the many routes of the many directions, then how fast or slow to go on those different routes of the different directions, this path and speed is pretty straightforward. It’s calm. It’s enduring. And sure, a little boring. Certain scenes seem to drag on for months. But neither this or any of the film’s over faults are severe enough to detract from what the picture does well.
The cinematography is astounding—gorgeous but never gaudy. Curran specializes in creating space for actors to immerse themselves in their setting and capturing the relationship they develop with it in a way that looks extravagant but completely organic—even when that relationship is with a black-fire sun, a blood-orange moon, four wily camels and an indigenous elder named Mr. Eddy, who speaks only Pitjantjatjara. (Pitjantjatjara is a dialect of Australian Aboriginal languages.)
Though it takes most of the film’s 102 minutes to get where it’s going, Tracks is a very grounding reminder of the massive, breathtaking world we inhabit but rarely consider in our urban clouds. As a sunburnt and blistered Robyn crawls closer to her coastal destination, there emerges an overwhelming sensation of both powerlessness and empowerment from being part of such a grand, noble universe
Pulling off an odyssey epic like Tracks without leaning on dialogue or character drama requires a lot of patience, and the film has plenty of patience, but still, this approach is not without its drawbacks. The emotional understatement takes its toll on character development. Typically, when characters embark on a massive voyage, it’s meant to represent an inner journey, as well—complete with character arcs and all that—but Robyn’s is virtually nondetectable. A one-time tryst between her and Rick seems to only put a damper on a dynamic begging to be explored, her annoyance toward him giving way to indifference. Yes, she’s happiest alone with her animals. But to have her eschew human contact with little explanation for doing so other than vague references to throwing grenades at your attachments and flashbacks to moments of family trauma is more than a little off-putting. Her inability to relate to people transfers to the audience’s inability to relate to her, which I don’t think was the intention.
Director Curran’s use of intermittent voiceover by Robyn, which quotes passages from Davidson’s 1980 book of the same title, is well-meaning in trying to offer inspiring insight into the why’s and who-for’s and for what’s, but there are times it’s a little distracting. Sound bites like “What matters isn’t what you take, but what you leave behind” just don’t quite land in 2014 and tend to feel more dated than timeless. And considering that her character hasn’t proven to be much for human empathy or understanding, Robyn’s authority on such matters is more than suspect.
Tracks is bold and beautiful, but if you’re looking to do more than reconnect with the Earth by way of a souped-up stroll in the desert with some camels, best sit this one out.
Director: John Curran
Writer: Marion Nelson (screenplay); Robyn Davidson (book)
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver
Release Date: Sept. 19, 2014