Tracks review: hopefully lost

Tracks green light

Romantic in the grandest sense, a visceral and hypnotic experience of idealistic aspirations set against the desolate beauty and danger of the Outback.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for stories about women doing adventurous things

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I just wanna be by myself.” Even in the free-spirited era of hippie adventurism that was the 1970s, people seemed not to be able to quite comprehend that it was a woman saying this. Or that she proposed to be by herself by walking solo 2,000 miles across some of the most unforgiving desert on the planet, the Australian Outback. If 27-year-old Robyn Davidson were a man, they may have thought him odd and shrugged it off. But no one here seems to know how to cope with a woman craving aloneness and embracing danger to find it. (It doesn’t seem to allay anyone that she is inspired by her father, who had trekked the Kalahari as a young man… for he was a young man, naturally.) So as in all other things, a woman has to work harder and be far more insistent and determined to get it done.

So there’s an extra level of powerfully satisfying triumph to be found in Tracks, based on the true story of Davidson’s physical and spiritual journey, the book she later wrote about her experience, and the photographs of National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan, whose brief, occasional presence along her path she tolerated in exchange for the magazine funding her venture. It’s because Davidson’s story is so well known — at least in Australia; I was delighted to be introduced to it here — that this ended up on the big screen in the first place (after many aborted efforts across decades to get it there, apparently). It is a foregone conclusion that Davidson (Mia Wasikowska: The Double, Lawless) will survive what ends up a nine-month walk from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. So while there are moments of great suspense and breathtaking peril along the way, this is not a thriller. Nor is it a mystery… like, say, the similarly themed Into the Wild, the true story of Christopher McCandless, who starved to death (for reasons still not fully understood) in the Alaskan wilderness because he was woefully unprepared for life off the grid.

No, Davidson, we see here, isn’t impractical or quixotic in her desire for a grand adventure. She spends two years — truncated onscreen, of course, in the crisp, lean script by Marion Nelson — learning how to work with the notoriously crotchety camels that will help her survive, and learning to live in the desert, before she even considers setting out.

And when she is finally on her way, with four camels and her beloved canine companion, Diggity, at her side… Tracks becomes an enrapturing experience, visceral and hypnotic, as we are afforded a taste of the jubilance Davidson reveled in, earned via her extraordinary self-reliance and ruminative solitude. Director John Curran (Stone) has tried before — unsuccessfully, with 2006’s The Painted Veil — to meld an emotional appreciation of an exotic landscape with the psychology of people passing through it, and here he achieves that, magnificently, as Davidson challenges her body and her mind in places of gorgeous desolation. Sometimes it’s the heat, and sometimes it’s just the gloriousness of being unbound by societal norms — she walks in the nude when the mood strikes her, and she enjoys the freedom from the expectation that a woman should be “pretty” all the time — lending a hallucinogenic quality to the shimmering desert, and a mystical quality to Davidson’s understanding of herself that could only have come in this place. If there is religion to be found in nature, Davidson found it, and Tracks lets us share in it.

Tracks is romantic in the grandest sense of the word, embodying Davidson’s idealistic aspirations amongst the rugged beauty of the Outback, but the very real dangers of the desert are never downplayed: Davidson has a map and compass, but these are the days before GPS, and getting hopelessly lost is not inconceivable. And even in the middle of nowhere, she can never truly escaping other humans, or some of civilization’s bullshit. Smolan the photographer (Adam Driver: Inside Llewyn Davis, Frances Ha) keeps showing up, and of course people live even in the harshest places in the desert, and have decided that some areas are “sacred” and hence “forbidden to women.” (Davidson has to make a long detour to avoid one such place.)

I wish I could show Tracks to all young girls and young women — and boys and men, too! — because we see so few movies like this, demonstrating such a simple truth that sounds profound only because it is so rarely articulated: that women dream of doing great, weird, wild, wonderful things too, and can make them happen if they work at them. And even more importantly: that those great things are worth doing.

viewed during the 57th BFI London Film Festival

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