Directed by John Curran
There is utter silence, save for the roaring of camels and melodic strings playing in the background. All of the desert sand under the unremitting Australian sun is baked to beautiful shades of red and brown. A young, audacious woman, Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska), kicks up clouds of hot dust as she heads westward, bound for the Indian Ocean.
Davidson’s spontaneous 1,700-mile trek across the barren Australian outback is brought to life in the 2013 film “Tracks,” based on the memoir of the same name by Robyn Davidson, through a splendid blend of cinematography and metamorphic undertones. From the town of Alice Springs, Davidson sets off, accompanied only by her black dog, Diggity, and her four camels, Dookie, Bub, Zeleika and Goliath. Along the way, she is regularly visited by National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), and she gains international notoriety as the “Camel Lady.”
In retelling Davidson’s tale of braving an unforgiving environment by herself, the production company See-Saw Films accomplishes its goal of transforming her from an inexperienced, fledgling journeywoman to an independent free spirit on screen. With minimal cast and an even tinier script, the film’s tone leaves the task of augmenting itself to two crucial parts: Wasikowska’s stellar acting and a sensually marvelous ambiance.
Showcasing a wide emotional range from optimism and elation to despair and vexation, Wasikowska is fully disposed to lead the audience through what is essentially a one-woman show. Every other character, in some way or form, serves to add greater depth to Wasikowska’s portrayal of Davidson through each interaction with her. The audience sees her unrequited love for dogs through Diggity and the constant learning process she bears in getting the camels to cooperate. Viewers are also shown her fragile ambiguity toward being in isolation. While she dislikes putting up with Smolan’s — and the rest of Australia’s — meddlesome interviewing and picture taking, she does experience episodes of panic, including one where she openly admits to feeling alone.
Wasikowska is juxtaposed with Driver, who does a decent job of pulling off the in-your-face, smile-for-the-camera type of journalist, Smolan, whom Davidson hates to be around at first but ultimately grows fond of. In several instances, he keeps the plot going by bringing the isolated Davidson back to humanity and giving her the necessary motivation to forge on when her hopes seem dashed.
See-Saw’s rendition of the desert and its effects on Davidson’s journey provide a lovely course of sensory stimulation. It mixes outstanding landscape shots with a silvery orchestral soundtrack. Similarly, credit should be given to the art department for its use of dust and sand in “drying” everything to the point that it becomes tangible to the audience. Not only does this eternally dry atmosphere allow viewers to almost feel the pain of walking on burning-hot sand and sympathize with the burden of swatting at flies, it also induces a strong sense of thirst to watch Davidson ration what little water she has.
In addition to stunning visuals and Wasikowska’s dramatic potency, “Tracks” carries its weight and slowly maintains the audience’s intuition until the ending by raising an assortment of ethical questions and connotations, which impede Davidson at every turn. Despite the film’s sporadic use of dialogue, it brushes on debates of sexism, cultural differences, suicide, independence and the justification of killing. Sparse and subtle, they fit like puzzle pieces into the grand scheme of the premise without detracting from the journey itself.
Seldom short of satisfaction, “Tracks” not only paints a vividly awe-inspiring picture of a continent that is relatively obscure to the mainstream, but it also invites the audience to go on an adventure through this picture. Time and societal constraints take a breather for two hours to let Australia do the talking.