It takes courage to walk with our demons, and in Tracks, director John Curran teams with screenwriter Marion Nelson to adapt Robyn Davidson’s soul-searching memoir of the same name. The resulting film is an artful meditation on the many ways the past informs the present, and one that wisely sidesteps melodrama to tell a richly inspirational tale of perseverance. Robyn...read more
It takes courage to walk with our demons, and in Tracks, director John Curran teams with screenwriter Marion Nelson to adapt Robyn Davidson’s soul-searching memoir of the same name. The resulting film is an artful meditation on the many ways the past informs the present, and one that wisely sidesteps melodrama to tell a richly inspirational tale of perseverance.
Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) was just 11 years old when her mother committed suicide. Subsequently sent by her father to live with her aunt, she received her education at boarding school and went on to study zoology. Operating under the nomadic philosophy that “when you’re in one place for too long, throw a grenade and jump,” Davidson decides to leave behind her comfortable life in Sydney, Australia, and search for herself in the desert. With only four camels and her loyal canine to keep her company on the 1700-mile journey from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, she discovers the value of solitude while being reminded of how it feels to be truly connected to the world. In order to fund her epic adventure, Davidson reluctantly allows prolific National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver) to capture it on film. Although Davidson's desire for privacy at first finds the disparate pair at odds, their adversarial relationship eventually evolves into an abiding friendship.
One of the great things about being a movie fan is recognizing when certain themes and ideas seem to be floating around in the ether. Comparing and contrasting the ways those concepts are explored in concurrent productions can be enlightening in regards to the medium itself, as well as the artists who create these works. 2014 sees the release of two fact-based films centering on women with traumatic pasts, who leave society behind in order to find themselves: Wasikowska as the haunted Davidson in Tracks, and Reese Witherspoon as recovering addict Cheryl Strayed in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild. As in many of these cases, both movies have their own merits and appeal; but whereas Vallée is rather explicit in his attempts to milk our emotions through bathos-fueled flashbacks, Curran uses those sparingly, largely allowing his capable young star to carry the film with her expressive gaze and Nelson’s precise dialogue. Though we’d typically be put off by a character who refers to someone as a “parasite” and wishes they would just “crawl into a hole and die,” Wasikowska delivers those stinging barbs in a manner that says more about her own suffering than it does the other person’s value. And while Davidson could be mistaken for a misanthrope at first, her warm bond with a respected Aboriginal elder who act as a guide reveals her to be a woman who simply communicates on a different wavelength than most.
The dramatic tension this creates, as Davidson slowly warms to the socially awkward photographer, is something rare and unique in cinema -- a relationship that relies on the ethereal chemistry of its leads rather than contrived dialogue. Much like Wasikowska, Driver is a rising talent capable of emoting on a more intimate scale. So even when Davidson and Smolan’s relationship is at its most complex, both actors play off each other with a subtlety that says far more about their characters than most writers could express in an entire page of dialogue. It’s a perfect complement to the poetry of Curran’s imagery; from the upside-down, out-of-focus shot that expresses Davidson’s malaise in the opening scene of the film, to the stunning final moments in which the horizon seems to disappear into the sea, he artfully shows us the world from her unique perspective, and allows us to inhabit it for a while.
For that reason in particular, Tracks might enjoy the popular appeal of a film like Wild -- which, while capably executed, perhaps connects the dots a bit too neatly. In both movies, we get a vivid account of the journey undertaken by a fascinating character. What makes Tracks a superior tale of personal discovery is that we truly follow in Robyn Davidson’s footsteps, instead of walking alongside her.
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