Tracks sets out to prove how disgusting the camel really is. Like a teenager at their peak awkward years, the camel is unnaturally gawky, looming over others like Shaq on a Little People, Big World special. Sporting a kind of tattered t-shirt, the camel wears a patchwork of umber skin with the look of a shag carpet that mated with sandpaper. Even grosser, their patchy coat flakes off in massive strips of brown, furry dandruff. Factor in the disquieting amount of spittle gobs involuntarily weeping off the camel’s drooping lower lip and that’s enough to call the Camelus Dromedarius easily one of the grossest creatures ever. But since Tracks is a movie about shedding your skin and proving you can be more than people expect, we have to give some credence to these oafish beasts (and the unexciting movie that contains them): they know how to hold their water. (It’s a double entendre, gettit?!)
But enough on the camels. (The utterly disgusting camels.) Tracks, directed by John Curran, is a movie about overcoming adversity that very little adversity to overcome. Curran and scribe Marion Nelson assume that Robyn’s 1,700-mile unmanned trek through the West Australian desert will exert enough natural drama to make the voyage interesting but, against the odds, there is just so little to rise above. There’s a few feral bull camels that need to be shot. She loses a crucial item every once in a while (only to recover it shortly thereafter). But the danger is always 100 yards away and never in her personal space. The thought that she might not actually make it never crosses our mind and because of that the tension is so limp that even a fully dreaded slackerliner couldn’t cross it.
Let’s rewind and break down the story a little more. Mia Wasikowska is Robyn Davidson, a real life new-age explorer who journeyed nine month’s across some of the least populated stretches of the Australian desert with three and a half camels (babies count as halves right?) and her faithful sidekick Diggity the dog. After months shmoozing and working for “the man” in order to learn how to own and operate camels, Robyn plans to embark on her once in a lifetime crusade but doesn’t quite have the capital to make it feasible. Enter Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), National Geographic photographer, and a grant from his parent company and Robyn has the means to make her trek a reality. The only thing is she now has to meet up with the culturally heedless Smolan to complete photoshoots every month or so and she had wanted to do the whole thing alone. Pouty face.
The trouble is, Smolan or Nosmolan, Robyn runs into peps all up and down her journey. For someone who apparently spent months to years planning out this journey, she should have known that uninterrupted solitude was never an option. Every time the weight of isolation begins to pressure down on her though, when that creeping thought of giving up takes hold, something comes to talk her out of it. Whenever her stock runs dry, the magical bushman or a pair of salt of the earth farmers or Smolan appear to fill up her tank.
Surely, the monotony of her pilgrimage weighs on her mental state but the only way that Curran communicates that thematic, non-visual mental degradation is by making the film’s proceedings laterally monotonous. She walks, she unpacks, she makes camp, she sleeps. She walks, she unpacks, she makes camp, she sleeps. There’s a moment where she confides in one of her humped beasts that she doesn’t know why she keeps doing this. And we, the audience, don’t really know either. Something about her dad’s failings (both as an Outback explorer and as a father) and definitely something about a deep-rooted connection to the local animalia (you’ll learn why in act three). She’s the kind of person who says she hikes to find peace but I’m not convinced she’s not out there to put something to rest. Like a Tim O’Brien soldier, she lays one foot in front of the other, humps on and tries not to think.
But for how gross the camels are (and by God are they gross) and how tedious the narrative becomes, Wasikowska is always rock solid. She’s as strong as a camel is nasty. In a role that requires very little talking and often proffers even less sympathy, Wasikowska plays a misanthrope who you can feel for, even through the levy that is her tough exterior is never quite broken down. Sun-kissed and filthy, Wasikowska’s got a twinkle in her eye that sells Robyn’s trait to connect more with animals than humans as genuine and without her first-rate performance, the film would be without nearly as much worth. Though a drummed up psuedo-romance with Driver doesn’t fit the narrative in the least, the Girls star continues to show just how much he brings to the project he’s involved in.
The other undeniable star of the show, cinematographer Mandy Walker, may have a history shooting sandy Outback sprawls (she worked on Baz Luhrman‘s Australia) but her shots her are hypnotizing and mirage-like, ushering some stunningly desolate imagery out of the otherwise barren landscape. Her use of lighting frames the infinite against the finite and colors the vacuous sky into stunning oil paintings. In another more interesting movie, she top-notch work would stand out even more.
One thing is for certain: you won’t find more camel drool in any other movie to come out this year. And even though the journey doesn’t ever conjure up the emotional impact that such a tale of triumph should, it’s a film that’s easy to respect. The moment when the thematic elements come together involves Robyn trekking across a sacred stretch of land with a non-English speaking bushman. Though they can’t understand each other, he talks on and on, babbling about this and that without subtitles. It makes for some great scenes and really gets to the heart of who Robyn is but the language barrier is symptomatic of the project as a whole. It’s got a message but is speaking in another language. You can admire it from an emotional distance but won’t likely fall for it. And that’s really what Tracks comes down to: it’s a film that inspires much more admiration than love. Ironically, that will likely also be its undoing.