In 2014, moviegoers were treated to two non-fiction literary adaptations about women in their mid-20s making long, difficult treks on foot. Jean-Marc Vallee's Wild told the story of Cheryl Strayed, who made a 1100-mile journey along the Pacific Crest Trail. John Curran's Tracks told the story of Robyn Davidson, who traveled 1700 miles across the Australian desert. Both women eventually wrote best-selling books about their experience, but they didn't begin their respective trips with a literary career in mind. What drove them to make such long, difficult treks? The answers in both cases are complicated and personal. I like Davidson's answer: “Some instinct – and I think it was a correct one – led me to do something difficult enough to give my life meaning.”
Though Wild is arguably the stronger of the two films, the thing I admire about Tracks is that it doesn't feel a need to provide a specific motivation for Davidson's decision. Sometimes human beings simply find themselves overcome by the call of the wild. This is a trip that she knows she needs to take, and that is reason enough to take it. Whatever happens along the way, there is no doubt that she will emerge from the experience a richer person.
Before Robyn (Mia Wasikowska, Jane Eyre) begins her journey, she works odd jobs to raise a little money and learns the art of handling wild camels (which she will ultimately use to carry her belongings). Eventually, she meets National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver, Girls), who suggests that the magazine might be willing to sponsor Robyn's trip in exchange for an exclusive story and a few pictures. Robyn happily accepts the proposal, though she's less than enthusiastic about being forced to meet up with Rick every few weeks. Their scenes together have an amusing push/pull quality: he talks and talks and talks, she looks away and sighs.
Tracks is episodic in nature, as films of this sort tend to be. She stops in small villages along the way, and shares quiet conversations with curious locals. At one point, she's joined on her journey by an elderly aboriginal man named Mr. Eddie (Rolley Mintuma), who also has a tendency to talk endlessly. She's unable to understand most of what he says, but she forms a deep bond with him, anyway. “Words are overrated,” one character says, and the movie takes that maxim to heart during its best moments.
Curran's most visually striking feature is his gorgeous The Painted Veil, but there are more than a few scenes in which Tracks rivals that film's level of evocative beauty. Curran captures both the spiritually satisfying stillness and the imposing harshness of the desert, and he never loses that sense of balance. There's a romanticism in certain shots of Robyn's sun-baked face, and much less romanticism in shots of her sun-ravaged back.
Robyn's relationship with nature is similarly complicated. She is an animal lover, but is warned in advance that she will be required to kill if she hopes to survive the journey. A good-hearted man gives her a rifle. “I don't want a gun,” she says. “You will,” he replies. Suffice it to say that his promise is not an empty one. She winces when she sees her camels castrated, but knows that it's a necessity if she wishes to tame them. She brings her dog Diggity along for the journey, and the dog's companionship proves an invaluable source of encouragement. One of Davidson's most memorable lines is preserved here via voiceover: “It seems to me that the good Lord in his infinite wisdom gave us three things to make life bearable: hope, jokes and dogs. But the greatest of these was dogs.”
Wasikowska's performance is another fine piece of work from the actress, who seems to specialize in playing characters who keep their deepest feelings hidden far beneath the surface (albeit in very different ways – contrast her turn in Jane Eyre to her turn in Maps to the Stars). Her increasingly weathered face is often more revealing than her dialogue, and the actress subtly depicts Robyn's various stages of physical exhaustion. The other actors tend to come and go rather quickly (with the exception of Driver, who comes and goes repeatedly), but the film is well-cast across the board – we always believe these people are exactly who they claim to be.
Tracks reaches for transcendence on a regular basis, but it only gets there occasionally. It doesn't have quite enough faith in its audience to reach greatness (translation: there's too much explanatory voiceover) and a number of early scenes don't quite generate the emotional impact they ought to. Still, this is a fine, elegant film that offers plenty of sights worth seeing. At its peak, it taps into something primal that can't be explained, but can be felt. Words are overrated.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 99 minutes
Release Year: 2014