It’s probably hard to make a film about someone simply walking from one end of a desert to another, but there’s got to be a better way to handle it than how John Curran does in Tracks. It’s not a particularly bad or even unwatchable film. At times it’s quite rousing, inspirational, and admirably bleak, but it’s also one of those “overcoming adversity” biopics that can’t quite let its subject be themselves for more than five minutes at a time. The clearly and awkwardly manufactured dramatic bits here don’t really help as much as the stark reality of the situation and the strength of the main character’s resolve.
Based on a book written by its subject and a National Geographic photo spread, the film concerns Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska), a self-described nomad just out of her teens who set out in 1977 to cross the Central Australian desert on her own with only a pack of wild camels to help her carry her stuff. It’s a dangerous six to seven month trip where she won’t likely run into a lot of other people, and in some case have to go up to several weeks without even finding a source of water. Undeterred and headstrong, Robyn sets out with minimal help to prove something to herself.
Davidson seems like a fascinating subject. She’s clearly running from something, and for most of the film the joy comes from trying to decipher just what it is she’s trying to escape from by going on this quest. All that’s immediately known is that she’s determined, hardened, and she wants nothing more than to be alone. She curtly says goodbye to her father, she only does work at the start so she can learn how to train camels, and she wants nothing to do with Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), the photographer who helps bankroll her expedition in exchange for meeting up several times to snap some pictures. When her story becomes a media sensation, she literally goes out of her way to avoid exposure and to answer questions about her ultimate personal mission.
But once the film flips its final cards, you realize you’ve essentially gone all in on a plot that beats you with a pair of twos. When it’s revealed why Davidson left her life of relative comfort behind, you kind of wish the movie just said the reason from the start. There’s not much there that benefits from being obscured for so long. Wasikowska brings more mystery to her performance than there is in the script, and Curran definitely does his best to direct the film between its story beats with gorgeous cinematography and a sense of swift pacing, but the narrative itself is the real problem here.
The film also very halfassedly tries to take on misogyny and Australia’s brutal history of racism against aboriginals, but it can’t really make anything out of it. The sentiments are tossed off because first time screenwriter Marion Nelson can’t find a way to make Davidson and Smolan’s work translate to the screen without turning it all into shorthand. And the less said about Robyn’s completely and almost unforgivably out of nowhere romance with Rick, the better. It nearly derails everything before it can have a chance to begin.
Still, the bulk of the film that takes place against the naturally inhospitable outback is dazzling. It might be reducing a lot of heavier mental and physical anguish to well crafted montage, but it also does a fine job of showing the enormity of the task at hand. It also doesn’t feel like a six month crawl through an arid wasteland where nothing more than the occasional shrub grows, and that sense of urgency ultimately makes the everything passable.