Tuesday, September 23, 2014

New movie review: Tracks

Mia Wasikowska leads a journey through the desert in Tracks.
In 1977, Robyn Davidson set out on a 1,700-mile trek from Alice Springs, Australia, to the ocean. She intended to walk the length of the journey, accompanied by her dog and the four wild camels she trained to carry her load. John Curran’s new film, Tracks, based on Davidson’s book of the same name, is a generally faithful retelling of this trip. Those familiar with the story will find little suspense in wondering about the outcome, but a mystery remains: Why has she chosen to do this?

That the film makes explicit in voiceover her reasoning is no help in answering the central question. The decision to ditch the world at large would be vexing to most, but it is absolutely baffling to the family and friends left behind. In these matters, there are generally two kinds of people – those who find comfort, stability, and joy among their loved ones and those who bristle at such tethers – and the latter will never make sense to the former.

From the start, it is clear Davidson has family and friends who love her. She loves them, as well, in the ways she is able, but they cannot offer her what she seeks: the solemnity and introspection in being alone. Before she leaves, several friends visit to see her off and, if they can, try to talk her out of this. They sit around the fire in her makeshift shelter and drink and smoke and chatter about the world, while she sits off to the side and observes.

These interactions mean little to Davidson, and their conversations register only as white noise. She escapes the trappings of the hut and steps out under the stars to be with her camels. Only in the wild is she truly at home, and only with her beasts is she at peace. The concerns and protestations of her family and friends do not move her because those are the very precepts from which she is escaping.

As she says later in the film, when she is in the wilderness in the company of her camels and her dog, she is free – free from the expectations, disappointments, and obligations that often define our relationships with the people in our lives. Whether she achieves this freedom, this enlightenment in solitude, will largely depend on the kind of person the viewer is.

If you believe there are reasons we live in communities and that the connections we make with others make life worth living, then there is not much in this film to dissuade you from that belief. However, if you are the kind of person who sees the boundlessness of nature and desires to explore that which lies beyond the strictures of our society, you will likely find enough here to confirm that view, as well.

Mia Wasikowska, whom you will no doubt recognize from Tim Burton’s recent Alice in Wonderland, is fantastic as Davidson. The role calls for the actress to be at once hardened by the events of her past and open to the possibilities of the future. Wasikowska embodies this duality with grace and skill, masterfully portraying the kind of woman who has enough charisma to peak the curiosity and admiration of readers the world over but who shies away from the attention she draws.

The emotional deftness of the performance is matched by its bruising physicality. Davidson hiked 1,700 miles across some of the harshest terrain Mother Nature has seen fit to produce, and Curran and Wasikowska combine to make sure the audience feels every inch of that walk. She is blistered and bloodied but remains tenacious and resilient.

To fund her journey, Davidson accepted sponsorship from National Geographic magazine, and as a condition of this support, she was required to allow a photographer to record portions of her journey. Adam Driver (HBO’s Girls) plays Rick Smolan, who ventures into the unknown on several occasions to meet Davidson along the way. Driver is good as the affable outsider on Davidson’s spiritual quest.

He is intrigued by her but respectful of her process enough to keep his distance. As a journalist who travels to all corners of the globe to document whatever he finds, there may be no one better equipped to understand the appeal in choosing the life of a nomad. But kindred spirits or not, the film never loses sight of the fact that this is the story of Davidson’s solo journey across the Outback.

And what a gorgeous journey it is. Inspired by the real-life photos Smolan took for National Geographic, the cinematography throughout the film is awe-inspiring. Mandy Walker, who also lensed Baz Luhrman’s Australia, brings that same eye for the local scenery but is gifted a richer color palette by Curran and makes full use of it. The oranges and whites pop brilliantly against an endless expanse of blue sky, and the heat of the desert practically radiates off the screen.

Several months into her journey, Davidson arrives at a white-sand desert. Curran and Walker choose to shoot her entry into this territory from a distant overhead vantage point, like a vulture eyeing a potential next meal. The pristine white sand, which suggests nothing living has ever ventured to these lands, gives the eerie feeling that Davidson and her beasts have walked off the edge of the film and into the blankness beyond.

And then we see the tracks they make with every slow and shaky step. Whatever she comes away with from this journey, in this moment, the footsteps she leaves behind seem to say, “I am Robyn Davidson, and in this place, I was free.”

See it? Yes.

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