Humans are by their nature social creatures. We seek fellowship, camaraderie, and always communal experiences—such as going to the movies. Perhaps that is the reason our fiction laments for the ostracized, and why we weep so generously for the alienated. “There but for the grace of God go I” could be a genre unto itself.
It’s also what makes John Curran’s Tracks so remarkably joyful in its celebration of the isolated. A quixotic ode to the love of the lonesome, this picture traverses introversion at the length of the Australian Outback, finding a beauty that is just as rugged in its pilgrimage.
The secret guide to this sojourn’s success is Mia Wasikowska, who gives an understated performance as Robyn Davidson, National Geographic’s fabled “Camel Girl.” Yet make no mistake, this tour de force turn is almost entirely a one-woman show, causing Wasikowska to be both the traveler and the true emotional landscape of the film, one that will dwarf audiences in its shadow.
Based on a memoir of the same name, Tracks follows the real life events that captured imaginations over 30 years ago when Robyn Davidson became the first woman to walk across the Australian desert with only four camels and her beloved dog, Diggity, to keep her company. The trek took nine months to complete and covered 1,700 miles between Alice Springs and the Indian Ocean. But much like any journey, the end point was almost an afterthought to the delicate silence that envelopes the caked sand, as well as many of the movie’s best scenes that are only occasionally populated by sparse voiceover.
As relayed by Curran’s direction and Marion Nelson’s screenplay, Robyn’s journey was as much about covering the gap in her soul left by a mother’s barely mentioned suicide and a father’s absence—he was a true fellow traveler who walked across east Africa, and then later disappeared from his daughters’ lives after selling the home and putting the dog down so he could vanish into the Australian desert. Yet, these motivations that likely could be construed as elements of melodrama in more traditional hands are ultimately only hinted at as clues to Robyn’s elemental pull toward a natural wonder that’s been eschewed by her contemporaries.
She simply wants to cross the desert, and we’re there to be lost with her for an engrossing 112 minutes.
Taking its inspiration from the actual imagery of National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan’s work, Curran finds a visceral prose to the overheated sand and clay that encompass both the horizons and Wasikowska’s reddening body. Indeed, it was Smolan, as appealingly played by Adam Driver, that made this adventure possible.
As most at home in a tent with her dog while working on camel ranches, the film’s Robyn was already on her voyage, at least in her mind, as early as 1975 when she arrived in Alice Springs to learn the ropes of desert survival. Unfortunately, dogged determination and a doted-upon dog did little to convince skeptics of her seriousness or purchased her supplies that could let her survive in the sun. It’s Smolan by the film’s account that makes the trip possible. After a chance meeting, Robyn is convinced to write National Geographic to sponsor her trek. But much to her chagrin, Smolan shows up every hundred or miles or so with a camera ready, turning this evocation of solitude into one of the great global human interest stories of 1977.
Driver’s punctuated intrusions into the story overwhelm the audience with well-meaning affability, simultaneously charming us and raising spiritual alarm bells with his intentional disruptions. Like seeing a dimmed opera house with Groucho Marx from a hushed patron’s perspective, Driver’s heightened gregariousness is entirely welcome in the movie, but still understandably infuriating for a protagonist who surmises that nice people like Rick are the worst, because “how can you tell them to go crawl in a hole and die?” Eventually, Wasikowska’s ethereal stoicism accepts the loud presence, which creates a unique symbiotic relationship that informs both the film, as well as the real-life Smolan and Davidson cover story that captures imaginations three decades on.
Robyn gets on better with the Aborigines characters in the film, whose difficult and tragic history in Australia is barely glimpsed, but circles each leg of the journey like the sweltering sun bouncing off the rock. Of special note is Roly Mintuma as Eddie, the Aboriginal Australian who accompanied Robyn for three weeks during some of the gentler parts of the walk, lending a helping hand against feral camels and the far more grotesque danger of gawking tourists gasping for a shot of “camel girl.”
But once more, as postcard-perfect as the western Australian desert appears throughout the movie, Tracks’ enduring strength lies within a soulful survey of Robyn’s quiet stubbornness: a slight girl with steely resolve. The days turn into months as time drifts away in the desert with the only signifier being the increasing blisters dotting Wasikowska’s back. Late in the picture, Robyn is sidetracked for several weeks and finds sole comfort while walking through the sea of rocks by foregoing any protection to the elements, allowing her blackened, scorched skin to appear as leathery as her boots. It is a fearless performance by Wasikowska, and one that would do well to be remembered during awards season.
Given its true story pedigree, it is hardly a spoiler to say that Robyn survives to see the Indian Ocean. Rick Smolan is there too, having helped every step of the journey whether in the physical sense (leaving barrels of water in the deadliest thousand-mile stretch of desert) or in the metaphysical (saving Robyn from the equally fatal buzzings of paparazzi waiting on the other end of that wasteland). Seeing the crashing blue of the sea overtakes both characters. In their shared moment of inaudible jubilance, witnessed by only a handful of animals, they would appear to be the only people on Earth. That this is a comforting notion is Tracks’ greatest triumph.