An adaptation of Robyn Davidson’s inspiring memoir, Tracks, has been in the works longer than its star Mia Wasikowska has been alive. So it’s a little unfortunate that after such a long wait it arrives at the same time as the Oscar-hopeful Wild, which stars Reese Witherspoon in a similar tale based on another best-selling memoir. But Tracks is its own film, and a visually arresting one thanks to the direction of underrated filmmaker John Curran (The Painted Veil) who captures the beauty and danger of the Australian Outback. Paired with the personal fortitude of Wasikowska’s performance, this is a film that will satisfy those who have been anxious to see Davidson’s story depicted on screen, even if it’s not quite the life-changing experience it could have been.
In 1975 at the height of the feminist movement, Davidson arrived in the eyeblink town of Alice Springs in Australia with a plan to secure some camels and make the 1700-mile journey across the Outback. Davidson wasn’t trying to make any kind of statement, though. When asked why she would make such a dangerous trek, she replied “Why not?” “Why not”, indeed. It’s an opponent to be conquered, an obstacle to be overcome; that much we know and other explorers have given the same excuse for the life-threatening tasks they’ve undertaken. However the enigmatic nature of her response doesn’t give us much to connect with in a film that is more of a character study than harrowing adventure.
That’s not to say Davidson’s journey isn’t fraught with peril and hardships, it’s just that the screenplay by Curran and Marion Nelson takes an understated approach to depicting it. When Davidson arrived in Alice Springs she had nothing, and had to work for years to acquire the camels she needed. Eventually, and with the help of some men who thought she was just a crazy “camel lady”, she gained four of the beasts and alongside her loyal dog Diggity sets out into the harsh wildlands. We don’t get much in the way of a backstory, except in brief flashbacks scattered throughout like trail markers. There’s loss in Davidson’s past and uncomfortableness around people. She’s more at home around animals, forging a quick bond with the camels that others barely understand. But mostly we learn about her caring nature through her connection with Diggity, the dog who has probably been her one lasting companion through life. He’s with her through thick and thin here, as well; enduring a blistering sandstorm, wild camel attacks, and much more.
Human connections are few and due to the very nature of the story it can start to become a plodding slog, but things pick up every time Adam Driver, who plays awkward National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan, arrives to heat things up. To secure the financing needed to make the trip, Davidson agreed to meet up with Smolan so he could document her progress in photos. The images he would shoot would become a global sensation, drawing exactly the kind of attention Davidson didn’t want. She didn’t much care for Smolan’s presence, either, but the two get closer and he becomes a reliable connection to the outside world she was so anxious to leave. It’s the continuation of Driver broadening range as a passionate leading man, something he rarely has a chance to show wallowing on HBO’s Girls. But this film belongs to Wasikowska, and she excels through what must have been a grueling production. One of the reasons Tracks has taken so long to get made was Davidson’s insistence it be an Australian production through and through, and Wasikowska’s tough, determined performance makes the wait worth it. It’s hard to imagine how this would have looked if Julia Roberts played Davidson as was the original plan.
Tragedy and unexpected humor complicate or lighten Davidson’s walkabout. The arrival of an Aboriginal tour guide brings a much-needed dose of comedy, and but mostly the film is as deadly serious as the landscape. Shot with a bare minimum of fuss by cinematographer Mandy Walker (who also filmed Baz Luhrmann’s Australia), the terrain has never looked so beautiful or deadly. To see it one can almost understand why Davidson would risk everything to be out there, but her actual motivations remain elusive. Tracks is one of the most gorgeous movies you’ll see this year and Wasikowska perfectly embodies Davidson’s unique strength of character, we just need to learn of where that strength emanates from.