Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: "Tracks"

Director: John Curran
Runtime: 112 minutes

To watch Mia Wasikowska in Tracks is to witness a rare feat of acting, one that combines physical exertion and quietly suggestive character detailing. In tackling the real-life expedition of Robyn Davidson across nearly 2000 miles of the Outback, director John Curran (The Painted Veil) couldn't have picked a better actress for the part. Wasikowska wears the role with integrity, allowing the marks of Davidson's journey to slowly, but surely, leave their marks on her mind, body, and memory. Even with a somewhat spotty script, Curran's fifth film is a rewarding return to form, bolstered by Wasikowska's beautiful performance and some outstanding cinematography courtesy of Mandy Walker (Australia).

Earlier this summer, The Rover portrayed the Outback as a dry, empty, unforgiving landscape. Tracks' vision, though formidable in its own right, is a much more inhabitable place, albeit for a chosen few. Among those few is Robyn Davidson, who - for reasons not immediately given - always preferred living in the company of mother nature than in the company of other people. She's not on a journey to "find herself." Instead, she already knows who she is and what she wants, and her response to the obvious question of "why?" is simply "why not?" 

Despite no clear angle for the journey other than "because I like being alone and am capable," Curran and writer Marion Nelson have fashioned a steadily paced, gradually involving exploration of Davidson's journey and its connections to her childhood. Despite a handful of friends and seemingly decent relationships with her father and sister, Robyn is determined to make as much of the trek on her own, with her only companions being her dog and four uppity camels. 

With so many shots of Davidson and her four-legged friends trudging through the sun-blasted Australian desert, it's a bit of a miracle that Tracks and Wasikowska never settle into empty, repetitive rhythms. Wasikowska - along with some truly stellar make up - is calm and determined, yet she finds ways of pushing beyond one or two default expressions along the way. Not once does it feel like the actress is coasting simply because a shot doesn't require obvious emoting. She sells the big, teary-eyed moments effortlessly, in part because she earns them through the dignity she brings to so many dialogue-free scenes covering Davidson's epic journey. The young actress has been on a roll this year in a handful of (sometimes underwritten) supporting roles, and she doesn't disappoint when her time in the spotlight finally arrives. Tracks is rarely, if ever, and exciting film, but it holds one's attention thanks to Wasikowska's sensitive portrayal of Davidson's physical and emotional struggle to endure nature at its harshest.

The only thing more important to the success of Tracks are Robyn's surroundings, and the film certainly disappoint here either. Cinematographer Mandy Walker (who, as a woman, is an unfortunate rarity in the field) turns in some truly gorgeous work capturing the Outback's harsh beauty. Her imagery - like Wasikowska's performance - never grows repetitive, even though it may seem like there's only so many ways to capture reddish sand and dried out plant life. Tracks is aces all around on the technical front, but it's hard to over state just how crucial Walker's work is making Davidson's journey look convincing. 

Additional departments like the aforementioned make up also contribute greatly to making Tracks work as well as it does. Garth Stevenson's lush, yet unobtrusive, score works wonders without threatening to overtake the images and emotions. With so much wordless traveling to be done, montages inevitably pop up (smoothly handled by editor Alexandre de Franceschi), and Stevenson's music keeps everything flowing along with understated elegance. That understated elegance is shared by Curran's directing which takes on the considerable task of balancing Davidson's literal and metaphorical journeys with smooth results.

The lone disappointment of Tracks comes from Nelson's screenplay, which doesn't always hit its mark when it comes to pacing or timing. National Geographic photog Rick Smolan (Adam Driver) shows up multiple times early on, and as a result it feels like it takes far too long for Davidson's real journey to get going (kudos, though, for not simply starting the film off with her already in the desert). Certain elements, like a compass with deep ties to Robyn's past, are introduced only moments before they become important viewer, which drains the film of some tension. Thankfully, Wasikowska and company are usually enough to counterbalance Nelson's structural missteps, even as they still keep Tracks from being an across-the-board triumph.

Tracks will, with good reason, not be everyone's cup of tea. Its treatment of Robyn's past and her mental state will strike some as lazy or shallow, and will leave them with almost nothing to connect to, even as Wasikowska tries her hardest. For all of the epic visual moments, it's the tiniest of details that will separate Tracks' admirers and detractors. Like Davidson's preference for limited human interaction, Curran's film is understandably not for everyone. Yet if there is a connection, what transpires over roughly two hours will prove to be a gradually-involving work of tremendous scope and delicately beautiful human strength.

Grade: B+/A-

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