Monthly Must See: John Curran's 'Tracks' Starring Mia Wasikowska
by Alex Billington
October 14, 2014
"Like any journey, it's not what you carry, but what you leave behind." Continuing our latest feature, the Monthly Must See profile, this time around I'm highlighting an extraordinarily beautiful film called Tracks, set in Australia directed by John Curran of We Don't Live Here Anymore and The Painted Veil previously. Tracks is now playing in limited theaters and first premiered at the fall film festivals in 2013, where I first caught it. Actress Mia Wasikowska stars as Robyn in the true story of an independent young woman who decides to hike 1,700 miles across the Australian desert on her own. Aside from her dog and three camels.
Tracks is a very dream-like experience, filled with never-ending, gorgeous landscape cinematography from Mandy Walker complimented by a remarkably beautiful score by Garth Stevenson (I really, really love this score - currently listening to it while writing this up). I first saw the film at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013 in the middle of a chaotic situation and for two hours I was transported to another world, it took me out of the real world and into a dream. That is an achievement of its own, but there's more to it. As Robyn says in the film, this is not an adventure, if anything it's a journey and the film focuses on her emotional and physical struggles as she makes this challenging trek on her own. There are some other folks she meets, too.
I went to see Tracks for a second time while it was playing in theaters in New York City as a refresher before writing about it, and it was as wonderful as I remember. I originally wrote in my review from TIFF 2013 that it's "like floating through a beautiful dream journeying across the Australian Outback." I didn't want it to end. The film deserves all the praise it has received and I hope more people continue to discover it. "Mia Wasikowska, as always, delivers an impeccable performance and carries the film on her shoulders. The score alone will last with me, and the film overall is just sublime." Give this film a look, you won't soon forget it.
Why watch this film? What makes it so good?
You'll want a camel by the end of Tracks. That's one good reason to see it, right? In all seriousness: Tracks is something special, it's a beautiful "dream-like" journey into the Australian outback with one incredible actress - Mia Wasikowska. I really love this film because it's unlike anything, it just feels so special, even though the premise is a trendy one nowadays - a woman decides to take a solo journey on her own to learn something. But this one stands out, with Wasikowska delivering an exceptional, raw, very real performance as Robyn Davidson, an amazing score, mesmerizing cinematography to go with it, and a compelling, moving story about a young woman, her friendly black dog and funny bunch of camels as they cross the Outback.
Other reasons to see it? Her dog named Diggity, and the parable she tells about the value of companionship with her dog. It was one of the many moments in the film that made me instantly smile with joy. Aside from her dog Diggity and her camels, there's a few wise people she encounters along the way, namely aboriginal elder Mr. Eddy (played by Roly Mintuma) who joins her on a segment of her journey. While the film is about Robyn's journey, I think there's as much to appreciate and learn through the moments and people she meets as there is in her own struggle. Whether it's appreciating generosity and comfort, or putting your trust in a friend, there are subtle smart lessons taught in Tracks. It's never heavy-handed, always enjoyable.
While some may claim it's an overly feminist film, I believe it's a film for everyone. It will be appreciated the most by adventurers, wanderers, introverts, those who find gratification through personal understanding. If you love animals, this is a film that will connect deeply with you. Tracks also promotes beauty in unexpected ways, by showing that beauty is not just physical, it's something that can be found in the roughest of rocks, the driest of places, the most wrinkled faces. Wasikowska breaks down and shows the beauty in being open, there's beauty in being yourself without the worry of having to cover up. Be free, and revel in that freedom.
What are other critics saying about it?
Film critic David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter wrote in his positive review: "Her spiky but gradually more accepting rapport with the photographer plays in nice contrast to her uncomplicated companionship for a central part of the journey with Mr. Eddie (Rolley Mintuma), an Aboriginal elder who guides Robyn across a stretch of country dotted with sacred sites. Funny and warm, Eddie is a fabulous character, a wily storyteller undeterred by the limits of their common language… But the dual heart of the drama is Robyn and the landscape across which she travels. These eventually start to seem inextricably bound together as raw sunburn and weathering exposure give Robyn’s mottled skin the appearance of stone or earth."
Our friend/colleague Kate Erbland gives high praise on Film School Rejects in her review from TIFF 2013: "Her Robyn is appropriately strong, willful, confused, and brave, and Wasikowska fleshes her out as a real human being, not some over the top cinematic caricature of a woman on the edge (and on the verge)… Scripting and narrative quibbles aside, Tracks is never anything less than intensely human and, quite often, deeply moving. The ultimate message of the film – hey, camel lady, you need people, too – is an obvious one, but thanks to Wasikowska’s beautifully crafted performance and plenty of stunning aural (the score is top notch) and visual treats to go around, it rarely feels heavy-handed or over-the-top. Tracks is a true unexpected pleasure, its own satisfying journey."
Film critic Eric Kohn for IndieWire does have some good things to say about Wasikowska in the end: "But that's not to say that Wasikowska doesn't fight back. Singled-handedly carrying the story to its inevitable conclusion, she gives Tracks a level of depth that nothing else in the movie can provide. 'I think you have a people problem,' she's told at one point during a conversation about her predilection for staying isolated. The observation resonates in Wasikowska's strongest scenes, all of which she handles solo."
Critic Melissa Maerz for Entertainment Weekly talks about how wonderful it is: "Like Davidson herself, this lush adaptation from director John Curran (The Painted Veil) is remarkable for accomplishing so much with so little. There's no love story, although Adam Driver is marvelously dorky as a National Geographic photographer who meets up with Davidson every so often and might be nursing a crush. There's minimal dialogue — and, really, not much to say, because Wasikowska's riveting performance tells you everything you need to know about how solitude can chip away at the mind. And there's virtually no attempt to psychoanalyze Davidson's motives for taking the journey: The script only hints at a tragic backstory, and in a voice-over, [she] thwarts any attempt to brand her as a women's-rights activist or a nature conqueror, stating only that she wanted to 'feel free'… Still, what's on screen will leave you in a state of wonder."
From "LifeVsArt" in an IMDb review: "I saw Tracks yesterday and I found it truly moving. It's a beautiful film - not just in it's transporting cinematography and landscapes, but beautiful for it's truthfulness, it's honesty. Tracks is both extremely poetic and extremely authentic - it's emotionally raw. I didn't find one false note in the movie - no melodrama or stereotype characters that you see in most Hollywood films. Mia Wasikowska's performance demonstrates that old line from Keats, 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty' - it's a great performance - the epitome of soulful. The journey is as much her character's internal coming to terms with herself and the world, as it is the external journey - but nothing is spoon-fed to the audience."
What should viewers look for to discuss about it?
How much is said through silence. "Words are overrated." That line from the film speaks greatly about one of the most potent messages of the film: how much silence can be deafening and yet also a relief, and the filmmaking plays on that - using sound that builds to a point where she often runs away or puts her hands over her ears. She learns greatly through her five senses during this experience, and the film shows how much each one of them teaches her a lesson. Speaking of, I also enjoy seeing how much she learns through others, despite trying everything in her power to stay away from other people along the way. Whether it's the camel trainer, or the nice folks that give her a wash near the end, or the many elders she meets along the way they all have some wisdom to impart and it's key to pick up on that, to learn something for yourself, too.
Give this film a chance, let it be whatever inspires you, let it have whatever effect it wants upon you whether that be delight or fright or curiosity or wonder. It's a beautiful film that can be appreciated on many levels.
Monthly Must See: We follow up with this discussion next month and highlight another great underseen film to watch. Thank you for reading and we hope you enjoy Tracks. If you do, please tell others about it.
From Last Time: We hope you did your homework, movie fans! Following up our last Monthly Must See for Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida with Agata Trzebuchowska, what did you think? What was your favorite shot or scene and why? Did you feel like she made the right choice? There's always more to discuss! Keep watching!