Written by Marion Nelson
Directed by John Curran
It is frequently argued that being a teenager is an awkward period in one’s life. The transition from child to adulthood brings with it a series of challenging physical, emotional and psychological transformations. That said, there exists what can be an equally challenging episode, one not so removed from the adventurous teenage years: being a twentysomething. After high school and university stands the first chapter in the rest of one’s entire life. What job is best? When will one marry? What does one want to do for the next few decades to earn a living, to fulfill one’s self and become a functioning human being? Famous Aussie adventurer Robyn Davidson struggled mightily with such weighty queries when she was 27 in 1977.
In John Curran’s new film Tracks, inspired by the published memoirs of the aforementioned Davidson, Robyn (Mia Wasikowska) is languishing in modern society. Its expectations, what she can and cannot do as a member of it, everything conspires to make her fed up with how she has lived up until now and, in a bold move, decides to go on the adventure of a lifetime by walking across 2,700 kilometers of desert in the Australian outback, specifically West Australia. While those to whom she announces her intentions tepidly try to make her understand the objective’s lunacy, Robyn is steadfast in her intent. After working on a camel ranch to earn three of which to call her own and obtaining funds via a partnership with National Geographic magazine, which sends photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver) to document her journey, the brave and intrepid protagonist, her faithful dog Diggity alongside her, begins the massive journey…
Adapting such a real life story into a piece of cinema brings with it a series of extraordinary challenges. For starters, the walk itself lasted a mind-boggling 9 months. How does one communicate the length of a near 3,000-kilometer long walk to modern audiences with boring them to death? Short of pulling off a Béla Tarr Satantango-esque epic, judicious decisions need be taken in order to pack the essentials into a reasonable running length whilst conveying the harrowing experience in gripping manner. In that regard director Curran and screenwriter Marion Nelson put their creative minds together to concoct a film with lofty pretenses. The result is a film that requires some patience to get through during the opening third but fittingly finds a comfort zone as the journey grows more perilous.
While some patrons walking into the theatre to see Tracks may be wondering what possessed Robyn to embark on such a challenging mission and how she when about preparing herself, it feels safe to say that most probably want to live through the journey itself, witnessing the hardships of the outback, its treacherous climate and animal wildlife. The opening portion, during which the heroine narrates her admittedly selfish (if somewhat noble reasons) reasons for her choosing to make the voyage while the audience sees her hop from one short-term job to another at a series of camel ranches, is edited together so hastily that it gives off the impression of being more an afterthought than anything else. The lone idea that is very well communicated to the audience is that Robyn is sick and tired of people. She does not get along very well with them in general and would much rather be left to her own doing with her dog.
When the transition from the preparatory phase to the journey occurs, all of Tracks’ elements come together to make for a very worthwhile experience. The pace slows down a bit, finding a consistency that mirrors the protagonist’s determined march across the deadly desert. For the next hour or so the audience has nowhere to go save wherever Robyn’s audacious trek takes her. The West Australian desert proves both beautiful and horrific, Tracks beautifully balancing the sense of awe and of terror one assumes comes with the territory when perusing such a landscape. Remarkable vistas, brilliantly bold plains, stunning sunsets alongside horizons unhindered by sky scrapers, all of these are exquisite until one starts to tire out, or is attacked by wild camels or maybe, just maybe, gets the sense that they may be lost…
For a person who so disliked interacting with others at this stage in her life, her relationships with the few important supporting players in the film are equally of value. On the one hand there is National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan. Smolan is an excitable, curious perfectionist, smitten by both Robyn the person and her boldness, the very concept of her self-ordained task. Robyn, in turn, loathes his intermittent visits (he catches up with her by truck once every few weeks for a short spell) but understands that his presence is a result of her agreeing to be a part of a story for the magazine which gave her the money she required to prepare the trip. Unlike in other pictures where a romantic angle can feel unnecessarily forced, in Tracks it actually makes Robyn a more compelling character. To call it a love angle is even a bit of a stretch. It’s much more a call out to connect with someone. As Robyn herself admits at one point, she feels alone. As the viewer, one can infer that she is not exclusively referring to the fact that she spends large portion of her days (if not weeks) with a dog and three camels as her companions but has probably felt alone in the world for some time, disconnected from society at large. Her second companion is Eddie (Roly Mintuna), an aboriginal elder who agrees to guide her for one of the more challenging stretches of the walk. Eddie barely speaks any English, yet vividly recounts various factoids and stories in his mother tongue (sans subtitles) as Robyn smiles politely, possibly understanding a bit of what he is saying. He is arguably the one person she feels the most comfortable around.
Mia Wasikowska has come a long from her lead performance in 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. The movie made her a household name even though the role itself was unmemorable. Now is seems as though she can do no wrong. She has truly crossed over from merely being a ‘star’ and has quickly become a dependable, versatile actress. Her work in Tracks is rather taciturn, demanding more of her physically than with any major dialogue exchanges said but versatility wins the day as Wasikowska is indeed up for the task.
Notwithstanding the first fifteen minutes or so John Curran’s Tracks effectively delivers on the promise of an epic, dangerous and, most importantly, awe inspiring adventure that one young woman chose to accept. Not for her family, not to prove a point, not to gain notoriety, but for her herself. The desert called out to her heart just as the film earnestly calls out to the viewer’s.