Tracks can monopolize your thoughts after a single viewing. Faraway in the depths of the Australian Outback, an expansive, uncouth terrain filled with dunes and red dust and fuming waterholes and sacred spaces and secluded settlements and solitary ruins and remains of dead animals crackling in the sandy winds like dried leaves, stands a woman – head down, lips parched, skin scalded, body dwindled, feet cracked, holding behind in one hand the rope tacked to her camels, breathing swollen waves of desert heat, holding her life together, gathering up the courage and perseverance to take that one step further into the wilderness. This is an image that you can’t shake off of your head. It sits somewhere in the mind as an itch, a nagging reminder of ‘That, which does not kill us, makes us stronger’. No matter how much you convince yourself that leaving everything behind and taking a long and wild trek in solitude is a pointless farce in practicality, you cannot help but feel a tinge of humility creeping inside of you when you watch someone go in their own terms and actually do that.
Inspired by true events from 1977 when Robyn Davidson took the 1700-mile solitary trek from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean across the most unforgiving Australian Outback, Tracks is a solemn masterpiece in every sense of the word. It brings the stark scenes of Robyn’s ominous effort through Mandy Walker’s realistic lens work with extreme close-up shots, an ethereal soundtrack and Mia Wasikowska’s acting that should be the gold standard for travel cinema. Every time she expresses the vulnerability in her eyes, she’d own your soul. She embodies the spirit of Robyn and carries it all the way with dust in her eyes and mouth.
Tracks cannot just go down as a great travel movie. At one point, it transcends into the surreal world of a traveler where at every step an ounce of life drips onto the cracked earth in sublime poetic motion. It unravels the psyche of someone who is lonely, disconnected, desperate yet persistent through to the core for a reason that is as enigmatic as life’s existence.
Robyn, played by Mia Wasikowska, comes to Alice Springs hoping to learn to train feral camels (three of them) to carry her camping gear and then embark on a mammoth trek along with her dog, Diggity. She does menial jobs to work up money but it is not enough until she gets sponsored by Nat Geo who also sends a photographer to record her journey intermittently. The initial scenes where Robyn interacts with different employers and trains the camels in the countryside set the mark for how little we know as urban dwellers. There is excellent attention to detail on feral camels’ behavior and the lifestyle surrounding them.
There are no long and drawn out conversations as the characters she meets en route embrace warmth, talk to the purpose and move on. Unlike most other travel movies where the traveler’s soliloquy in low-key voice-over is used in expressing profoundness of their nature and the glory of ascetic living, Tracks relies on the exact opposite. It starts off that way but stops being that the moment her trek begins. It’s all images thereafter, her past life only shown in silent inter-cuts, bringing humility to the character itself.
Supporting characters that come and go like the old couple in a secluded home, Eddy, the ‘old fella’ who accompanies her through the sacred places, and the photographer who grows onto caring for her through the course, add brilliant contrast to the movie’s barren motif. My favorite part is where Eddy does mono-acting to entertain Robyn lying in the shades or when he rags the photo-crazy tourists to drive them away or when Robyn’s cynical employer sends her off with a jealous frown on her face – the subtlety and absolute grace of them all.
Tracks has great sounds – not just those great mood pieces reflecting new age redemption through mysticism but the sound of the desert itself; the constant buzz of the flies, the grumps and whines of the camels, the jangling of the chains, the sound of her shoes scratching the dusty grounds, crackling of the campfire, panting of the dog, and the scathing blow of the winds. They transport you to that world. However, the most important sound that you will experience greatly throughout the movie is the haunting susurration in Robyn’s mind that she has to keep going despite all odds against her.