I shall precede this review by admitting that I have not yet seen this year’s other fact-based Woman Treks Through Desert movie, though I have already been annoyed by its awards campaign, following the Fear Factor as Oscar Bait formula of Sandra Stuck In A Box Bullock and Matthew Queasily Emaciated McConaissance. Time will tell on whether Reese Carried Heavy Backpack Witherspoon’s much-hyped performance in “Wild” will either result in a well-deserved Withaissance or if it will prove to be as mediocre as those of her overrated predecessors. Regardless, it is imperative that audiences seeking out the year’s most vital cinematic offerings not overlook the indie with a nearly identical premise that opened in limited release today.
“Tracks,” directed by John Curran and written by Marion Nelson, is sorely undeserving of getting lost in the shuffle. It is the best big screen showcase to date for the talents of Mia Wasikowska, an Aussie actress whose delicately nuanced work is never less than mesmerizing. It’s the sort of acting that never strains for attention and is often overlooked, which is why casting her in a role like this one is a masterstroke. Wasikowska stars as Robyn Davidson, a woman who famously walked 1,700 miles through the scorching desert landscape of West Australia, and later wrote a memoir about her experiences, which served as the film’s source material, along with the images captured by National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (played by Adam Driver). What inspired her to take on such a formidably arduous journey? The film is wise to provide no pat answers. What’s crucial is that the desert’s vast empty expanse looks as seductive to us as it does to our heroine, and Mandy Walker’s rapturous cinematography somehow succeeds without glossing over the less attractive details, such as the sweltering heat and ever-present flies.
The soft, contemplative tones of Wasikowska’s unobtrusive narration prove to be equally entrancing, as she voices her character’s desire to escape entirely from the standards and structures of civilization, as well as the expectations of others. “To not be needed to be one thing or another, to be free” is what Robyn wants more than anything and causes her to embrace the unknown on a journey fraught with potential doom. There are also hints of heartache stemming from her past, often glimpsed in fleeting flashbacks, yet it’s the tender shades of melancholy reverberating beneath Wasikowska’s performance that tell us everything we need to know. Her discomfort around other people, particularly the hyper-talkative, clearly smitten photographer, is crystalline. She yearns for the silence of solitude and the uninhibited privacy that comes with it. In the darkest moments of life, how often has one felt compelled to simply walk for an indefinite amount of time and with no particular destination in mind? Of course, Robyn has her eyes set on the Indian Ocean and her heart set on accomplishing this death-defying feat on her own terms. The empowering implications of her achievement are suggested without being preached.
What could’ve caused this film to collapse is the romance that could’ve easily been contrived between Masikowska and Driver, whose work here is every bit as impressive in its depth and resonance. He starts out as a neurotic comic relief who awkwardly gabs at Robyn until she bursts into tears of frustration. Within the very same shot, she impulsively decides to satisfy his lust, which brings an underlying tension to all of their subsequent encounters. After finding that their night of sex left no impact on her detachment toward him, Rick undergoes an intriguing arc of his own, forging ahead in his curiosity and concern without wallowing in resentment. It’s yet another fantastic performance from the consistently surprising Driver, affirming his remarkable range without requiring him to steal scenes as he does on “Girls.” This is Wasikowska’s film, through and through, and she owns every frame.
Like many of this year’s greatest films, “Tracks” has an uncanny ability to burrow us within the psychology of its central character in startlingly visceral ways. Consider the sequence where Robyn is suddenly faced with an oncoming threat and must scramble for her shotgun, a weapon she was hesitant to bring but has now emerged as essential. Editor Alexandre de Franceschi elongates the action in a way that not only amps up the suspense but magnifies the unease and desperation with which the usually fearless young woman achieves this unwanted task. Another scene of a potential attack is even more unsettling since Curran preserves the ambiguity over whether the threat was a mirage or a hallucination. In any case, it never arrives, though there’s little doubt its presence will haunt the peripheries of Robyn’s weary vision for the remainder of her adventure. There are also countless moments of transcendent beauty, such as when Robyn dives into a pool with childlike abandon or urges her beloved dog to act as a compass or bids adieu to her elderly guide, a local man who taught her the essential principles of survival and forged a meaningful bond with her, despite not knowing a single word of English. After all, as one character reflects, “Words are overrated.” There are indeed, especially in cinema. What a wonderful movie.