“Man versus nature” is one of the classic types of literary conflict. It has existed as a concept for as long as man has. The earliest humans had to battle nature just to survive. Perhaps that is why it has persisted as device in our stories – long before we could fight each other, we had to fight the world itself. In director John Curran’s latest film, Tracks, Mia Wasikowska plays a woman whose disillusionment with society has driven straight into the arms of humanity’s first great enemy.
Tracks adapts Robyn Davidson’s similarly titled account of her 1700 mile trek across the Australian desert, accompanied only by her dog and four camels. Wasikowska portrays Davidson as a damaged loner just looking for some solitude. Unfortunately, part of her deal with National Geographic – the sponsor her outlandish journey – requires that a photographer (Adam Driver as Jeff Goldblum) check in with her periodically along the way.
In reality, Driver’s character, Rick Smolan, was not thrust upon Davidson, in fact she requested that he be her photographer, but that sort of real-life accuracy would have ruined the film’s romantic dynamic. I make fun, but Tracks actually subverts the relationship that its marketing seems to be pushing. There is an amount of sexual tension between Robyn and Rick, but that is in no way the point of the movie. This is one hundred percent Robyn’s story, and Rick is just around for support (sometimes too much support).
In that sense Tracks is Wasikowska’s movie as well, and she does a pretty admirable job. It is hard to play misanthropy without coming across as unlikable. Emile Hirsch tried to ride that line as the main character in the similarly themed Into the Wild, and the result was a character (granted, based on a real human being) that I was glad to see (SPOILER ALERT) die by the end. That role even ruined Hirsch as an actor for me for several years. I’m only now starting to like him again after performances in movies like Prince Avalanche.
Wasikowska manages to avoid this trap, and I’m not entirely sure why. It must have something to do with the fact that she does spend a good chunk of the film on her own. Hirsch’s Christopher McCandless spends so much time in Into the Wild being pretentious and unbearable around other people that you can’t help but root against him when he’s by himself. But Wasikowska’s Robyn really just wants to get away from others and do her own thing. She doesn’t get off on talking about it.
Keeping all of this in mind, Tracks still does not cohere into a great movie. The first half is slow and repetitive and dull. And repetitive really shouldn’t be a fair criticism in a movie about a woman walking across a desert, but then Curran breaks the monotony up so effectively in the second half that you have to wonder what the problem was before. As Robyn’s journey becomes more labored and dangerous, Curran responds by changing up his style. He drifts into Terrence Malick territory at one point, with an extended sequence consisting of slow-motion and whispered narration, but he breaks out of it relatively quickly and experiments instead with well-done match cuts and rapid edits.
The movie also looks gorgeous. Who knew that a movie about the desert could be so diverse in its colors and foliage and landmarks, but cinematographer Mandy Walker (Shattered Glass, Australia) manages to make everything pop out and appear distinct.
Davidson walked into the desert in 1977 and triumphed in her battle versus nature (that’s not a spoiler – she wrote the fucking book). In doing so she learned things about the world and herself. Tracks tries to convey this sense of self-discovery, but is never especially effective in that endeavor. Still the movie is bolstered by excellent visuals and a solid central performance. Tracks will be forgotten by the end of the year when Reese Witherspoon’s analogous film, Wild, comes knocking on the door of the Academy Awards, but it is a solid piece of filmmaking, regardless of its shortcomings.