Tracks (2013)

Review first published by Sight & Sound, May 2014

Synopsis: 1975, Alice Springs. Robyn Davidson arrives with her dog Diggity, determined to obtain some camels and trek solo across the Western Australian desert to the Indian Ocean. After working first with camel-owner Kurt and then with Sallay, she gains experience and puts together a team of four camels. She turns to National Geographic for sponsorship, and reluctantly agrees to meet with her sister’s friend, the photographer Rick Smolan, at three points on the journey. Setting off in 1977, she travels mostly alone, but encounters on her way missionaries and other white locals, Aborigines (including Eddie, an elder who walks with her through a sacred zone), as well as curious tourists, a press pack, and of course Smolan himself, who though at times intimate with her remains respectful of her need for solitude. Davidson fights off wild bull camels, and must eventually even shoot her beloved Diggity after the dog has eaten strychnine. She makes it to the coast, met by Smolan.

Review: Though deserts are dynamic environments, they also tend towards a certain visual uniformity, ensuring that any object placed within them – be it a tree, an Uluru-sized monolith, or a woman leading a camel train – is likely both to offset, and be offset by, their isolating vastness. When director John Curran (We Don’t Live Here Anymore, 2004; The Painted Veil, 2006) decided to turn Robyn Davidson’s solo trek across the Western Australian desert into a film, he already had Rick Smolan’s celebrated photographs of the journey (published in 1978 in National Geographic) as a template for his particular vision. Yet part of what makes Tracks (adapted by Marion Nelson from Davidson’s homonymous memoir) so compelling is the way that these sprawling, forbidding vistas are made to serve not only as grand cinematic spectacles in themselves, but also as canvases that chart the more inaccessible parts of the protagonist’s psyche.

“When people ask me why I’m doing it, my usual answer is, ‘Why not?’,” says Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) in voice-over near the beginning of Tracks – but her flippant, because-it’s-there response hardly dispels the question. In fact, hints at something deeper driving this young woman’s 1700-mile, 175-day walkabout come in the film’s opening images, where the sight of her solitary figure trudging through shimmering desert haze is intercut with an impressionistic, out-of-focus flashback to a small but significant number of steps she took in her childhood, away from everything she loved. For this journey is also an odyssey, an exploratory return to the unresolved sense of isolation and loss that disrupted the homelife of her youth after her mother hanged herself and 11-year-old Davidson had to go live with her Aunt, leaving her father and beloved pet dog behind.

Davidson is accompanied on her cross-country voyage not only by four camels and her (new) dog Diggity, but also by her mother’s old compass and a tape recording of her mother’s favourite album. Davidson may claim, “If this trip was inspired by anyone, it was my father” – a father who, much like Davidson herself, was an avid explorer and “happiest on his own out in the bush” – but when, upon finding her missing camel Dookie, Davidson exclaims in uncharacteristic anger, “Don’t ever leave me!”, or when later, lamenting the death of Diggity, she wails, “I miss her so much!”, one can discern the ghost of the absent mother, and a daughter’s raw feelings of abandonment and yearning, being disinterred and exorcised. Towards the end of the trek, as Davidson becomes dehydrated and delirious, the landscape too becomes hallucinatory, and we are not quite sure where the dreams (chiefly of nooses, or noose-like snakes) end and the sweltering, mirage-filled realities begin. Davidson’s headscape and the surrounding landscape have finally met at the horizon, in a wide-open space with its own psychogeography. So as the film, like Davidson herself, treats with sensitive curiosity the many Aborigines encountered on the journey, the Australian wilderness becomes a land of Dreaming.

All of which is far more subtly presented on the screen than it might sound on the page. Even Davidson’s dance of respect and occasional intimacy with Smolan (played by Adam Driver, of TV’s Girls) remains understated, never turning into full-blown epic romance. If Davidson is elusive – free-spirited yet determined, independent yet needy, misanthropic yet lonely – her contradictions are placed in stark relief by the wastelands she makes her restless home.

Anton Bitel