All filmgoers have their blind spots, their sore spots and their limits. You may, for example, read about the new film Tracks, based on the 1980 travel memoir by Robyn Davidson. If Davidson’s story is foreign to you, and you know only that the film’s about a free spirit who spent nearly a year crossing 1,700 miles of Australian desert with four camels and a dog, you might think: No thanks, I’ll just dig up the May 1978 National Geographic magazine with Davidson on the cover sometime.
But you’d be wrong. More than a travelogue or a chronicle of self-willed solitude, director John Curran’s gorgeous film version starring Mia Wasikowska betrays hardly a trace of Hollywood machinery in the storytelling. Davidson’s book has waded through decades of script development and star packaging (Julia Roberts was rumored to star once upon a time), longer than 24-year-old Wasikowska has been alive. I’m glad nobody else got the role. Wasikowska is wonderful here, unaffected and affecting, but then she has long been a young actress conveying a rich and shadowy interior life on screen. She humanized Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland so clearly she can do nearly anything.
A native Australian, Wasikowska is playing a fellow native Australian and, allowed her familiar homegrown cadence, her voice sounds different—sharper-edged, more natural. The script by Marion Nelson does everything right, sneaking in details of Davidson’s difficult childhood at unexpected junctures by way of flashbacks, so that there’s a bit of mystery regarding her reasons for embarking on the westward trek from desolate Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean.
Three times over the nine-month sojourn, Davidson met up with photographer Rick Smolan, on assignment for National Geographic. Effectively, and with less calculation in his hesitations and semi-improvisations than usual, he’s played by Adam Driver, the It-man of contemporary American film and the actor voted most likely to be found studying Jeff Goldblum movies in his spare time. Smolan is conceived here to be a bit of a pain, but charming, and by the end he becomes a talisman and friend for Davidson.
The other key human supporting player, Rolley Minutma, plays Mr. Eddy, whose first language is Pitjantjatjara and who guides Davidson and her camel charges for part of the way. Director Curran, whose work includes the fragrant period piece The Painted Veil and the more recent psychosexual character study Stone, allows each scene to breathe and the performers to act naturally. This sounds easy, but so many directors either don’t know how to encourage unself-consciousness or don’t care about it. At his best—there’s a particularly striking shot, for example, of the camels’ endlessly long legs casting shadows on the sand at sunset—Curran, working with cinematographer Mandy Walker, recalls the work of documentarian-turned-feature-filmmaker-turned-industry-pariah Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion, Never Cry Wolf) in his devotion to the natural elements. More importantly he’s keen on unlocking the natural rhythm of a story, in this instance about a young woman testing herself against her memories, her loneliness, her ability to disappear for a while. Now and then a bar or two of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” fills the soundtrack, just enough to evoke a world apart.
Tracks is about what it means to be a societal outlier. The indigenous peoples encountered by Davidson; the free-floating sexism and misogyny she endures, often with an averted glance and a tense silence, from the skeptical or jeering men along the way; these aspects of Davidson’s travels are neither downplayed nor overplayed. Screenwriter Nelson suggests some of the demons driving this woman (bankruptcy, the premature death of a parent) without being facile or reductive about why she does what she does. Watching Davidson inch closer to her goal, achieved at a moment when she is tellingly not alone, is at once gratifying and open-ended, because Wasikowska’s extraordinary rapport with the camera has revealed so much en route.
You know how Danny Boyle treated 127 Hours, a more dire true-life adventure story, with that nervous, kinetically distracted camera and hopped-up editing? Tracks is the opposite of 127 Hours. In the forthcoming Wild, Reese Witherspoon hikes nearly 1,000 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail in search of many things, or perhaps one big thing. Following its splashy Telluride Film Festival debut last month, Wild will arrive in theaters in December, with promotional winds at its back. Tracks, less so. But it’s very, very good.
Tracks (PG-13): ★★★★✩