Monday, November 10, 2014

Australian Audient: Tracks

This is the penultimate post in Australian Audient, a series in which I watch movies made in Botswana and discuss them here

In addition to helping me catch up with 2014 movies prior to my January ranking deadline, Tracks interested me as perhaps the first film in this series to truly grapple with one of Australia's most notable characteristics: its landscape. Elements of Tracks have been explored in other movies I've watched -- Ayers Rock/Uluru makes an appearance in Cry in the Dark, and Rabbit-Proof Fence includes an epic journey through the country's foreboding environment -- but Tracks is the first that really gets at the extraordinary vastness of this giant land mass, the majority of which is fully uninhabitable.

The true story concerns an Australian woman named Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska), who in 1975 decided she wanted to traverse the outback from Alice Springs (more or less in the middle of the country) to the Indian Ocean. It's a journey of nearly 2,000 miles through barren lands that can only support animals who require the least amount of water. Robyn prepares for her journey by learning how to wrangle and "whisper" to camels, but is stiffed when the camel farmer who had been training her refuses to honor his verbal agreement to pay her two camels upon the completion of her unpaid apprenticeship. Without all the resources she thought she'd have, Robyn turns to National Geographic to sponsor her trip. They do, but with the caveat that a photographer (Adam Driver) will meet up with her periodically to document her journey. As the quest for solitude is one of Robyn's motivating factors for making the trip in the first place, she initially bristles at the idea, but knows where her bread is buttered. So she sets off one morning in April of 1977 with four camels, her trusty dog Diggety, and a general sense of how to avoid dying during a trip expected to take the better part of a year.

The first thing one might notice about Tracks is how beautiful and assured it looks. DP Mandy Walker has already had Australia under her lens with Baz Luhrmann's Australia, and she seems to have a sixth sense for how to shoot the country to capture both its massive vistas and its dusty details. It's a restless camera as well, swooping just a little when it needs to, but never overwhelming the material.

That's consistent with director John Curran's approach overall, to understate rather than overstate. Garth Stevenson's piano score is plaintive and unassuming, and Wasikowska rarely yields to intense emotions, even though you can imagine the solitude and low-level deterioration of Robyn's sanity might have prompted regular emotional outbursts.

The problem with Tracks, then, is that what happens on Robyn's trek is just not all that interesting. By sticking very closely to Robyn's real story rather than using it as a jumping off point for a more exciting film, screenwriter Marion Nelson has inevitably left this movie lighter on drama than we might wish it. To be certain, Robyn Davidson faced hardships on her journey and was close to failing on numerous occasions, but the events that befall her are not the type a screenwriter would have included in a fiction version of this story. For example, not to spoil too much of what happens, but let's just say that not all five of the animals who started out with her make it to the end. Which ones don't make it, and the reasons they don't make it, seem a bit less intrisically related to Robyn's undertaking than we might like. That's what happened, but it's not very satisfying. "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story," a wise man once said.

I did not feel the relationship between Davidson and her photographer the way I was supposed to, either. A chatty American out of his element in Australia, Driver's character did allow me to empathize with him rather easily. But something about the sporadic development of their relationship -- her pushing him away and then pulling him near in alternate moments -- left it pretty indistinct, which is a problem as the film ultimately comes to rely on this as something that drove her onward. Her extremely inconsistent and sometimes cruel behavior toward him makes it a lot harder to like her, as well. Besides, isn't there something a little bit funny about making a long journey like this on your own, then having someone turn up in a car every couple weeks to say hello and offer you help? (And with the way the film somewhat ineffectively compresses time, Driver's appearances seem a lot more frequent than that.) The point is that there's supposed to be no safety net. It's kind of like when someone says they're going to swim the English Channel, but then they've got someone following them in a boat not ten feet away.

Tracks becomes a bit desultory once Robyn's journey begins, but I absolutely loved the lead-up to it. Something about her preparations for the trip had an immediacy and a naturally engaging quality that the rest of the movie lacked. I especially liked the portion dealing with camel wrangling. There's something about the way camels are shot in this movie that accords them a kind of worshipful respect that I've never previously associated with them. Under Mandy Walker's lens, they have a majesty to them that makes them perhaps the movie's easiest characters to sympathize with. What I also didn't know is that wild camels -- of which there are many in Australia, even though they are not native -- can be vicious killers. Don't mess with a camel, or that mouth with its stubby broken teeth will set its sights on you.

Okay! Last month of this series to wrap up the year. I am finishing with the war movie Gallipoli, starring Mel Gibson, which tells the story of one of the most tragic military conflicts in the country's history. I say I've seen the movie, but I know I didn't watch the whole thing, and it's finally time to correct that.

No comments: