September 11, 2013



There’s no cutesiness to be found in John Curran’s film TRACKS, a bracingly non-Disneyfied true-life nature tale.  In the mid-1970s, a young Australian woman named Robyn Davidson decided to walk across almost two thousand miles of desert to the Indian Ocean, accompanied for the most part by only a few camels and her faithful dog.  She didn’t do it to win a prize or gain celebrity, but just to prove it could be done–and even more, because she craved the sheer overwhelming solitariness of the desert.  One can easily imagine the Hollywood version of the tale, with a spunky CW or ABCFamily star in the lead and plenty of plot contrivances added.  But Curran and first-time screenwriter Marion Nelson, as well as the gifted young actress Mia Wasikowska, who plays Davidson, give the woman her space and dignity, and the result is a model of matter-of-fact amazement.

Curran has had an uneven directing career, with the well-acted We Don’t Live There Anymore followed by the stately, inert The Painted Veil and the merely strange Stone.  Something about Davidson’s story seems to have reached out to him as a filmmaker, and this is his best work thus far.  Nothing is hyped up; the facts are remarkable enough that restraint is its own reward.  Nelson’s script is beautifully paced, taking its time for the first half-hour to present Davidson’s 2 years of methodical preparations for the trip and building her character so that we can understand her (as much as such fundamental mysteries can be understood), then setting out on the journey.  It might seem that a 1700-mile trudge through desert would be unavoidably monotonous, but the screenplay provides a constant stream of incident, where the arrival of a dangerously non-domesticated camel or the opportunity for a swim in a man-made water tank along the way is a major event.

While Tracks isn’t quite a one-woman show, in the end much of the film rests on the shoulders of Wasikowska.  With the exception of a blockbuster pause for Alice In Wonderland, Wasikowska has been a notably serious young actress, doing almost all her work in intense indies like Stoker, Jane Eyre and Albert Nobbs (and on TV’s In Treatment), and she gives an unsentimental, uncompromised yet charismatic performance here, holding the screen with a convincing recreation of Davidson’s determination and wonderment.  In order to finance the trip, Davidson was forced to accept a sponsorship from National Geographic Magazine, which demanded as compensation that their photographer periodically meet her along the way to document the expedition.  As Rick Smolan, who–with some notable moments of exception–Davidson barely tolerates, Driver provides a far less scabrous yet still recognizable version of his semi-annoying, semi-charming Girls persona.  There were also times when Davidson was compelled, as a white woman, to travel through certain tribal territory with a male Aborigine elder, and Roly Mintuma is Eddie, the most memorable of those companions.

With so few distractions along the way, a film like Tracks puts unusual pressure on the technical crew, and they all deliver roundly.  Mandy Walker’s photography is starkly, majestically beautiful, and Alexandre de Franceschi’s editing not only paces the story well but avoids obvious temptations like calculated cuts to the camels for easy laughs–they keep their dignity as animals here.  There’s also an unusually compelling score by Garth Stevenson, which carries the mood of Tracks without cliche.

Tracks is an admirable chronicle of a remarkable feat, with a superb performance at its center.  In an industry obsessed with the YA audience, it would be nice to imagine some teens being able to connect with a less coddling piece of entertainment like this one.  It’s worthy of its subject.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."