Tracks

Hey, Camel Lady

tracks

In Tracks, based on Robyn Davidson’s memoir, Mia Wasikowska plays an Australian character in Australia.  We’ve certainly come a long way since Mad Max.

Tracks‘s introverted nature makes its achievements that much more profound.  Robyn (Wasikowska) procures several camels, says farewell to her (few) close relations, and sets out on a 1,700 mile trek across West Australia.  She and her dog, Diggity, whom she refers to as the greatest gift given to humans (never mind the fact that we created them through centuries of genetic meddling and inbreeding), make the entire trip on foot, never actually riding the camels.  Before she even begins the journey, Robyn is informed that Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), a National Geographic photographer who probably fits this generation’s definition of “adorkable,” will meet up with her several times in order to satisfy the publication’s interest in her adventure.  Robyn wants to do this alone, but reluctantly agrees to the occasional meetings.

The film achieves a lot in the way of characterization early, not relying on outside knowledge of celebrity to fill in a voidlike silhouette.  Sparse flashbacks hint at the suicide of Robyn’s mother (a real-life event), but Robyn’s thematic voiceover (what’s with filmmakers having Mia Wasikowska do this all the time?) assures us that there’s no highfalutin reason for her journey.  She proves able to tame camels and use a rifle as well as any of the confident males who are paid to do the same, and begins her walk with no one’s help – in fact, the idea of those peppered occasions of human contact with Smolan seem to do the opposite of comforting her.

The film’s story movement remains consistently focused on Robyn’s progress, Robyn’s morale, Robyn’s sun-dried body, and especially Robyn’s mind.  Director John Curran, working from a tight screenplay by Marion Nelson, makes no attempt to contrive outside drama by showing the hype that generates from Robyn’s exploits; it’s all-too-well illustrated in the mobs of tourists who swerve off of desert roads to get a quick glance from the “Camel Lady” (a name Robyn appreciates about as much as Benny Siegel appreciated “Bugsy”).  There are the inevitable beats that may have been retroactively (read: post-real-life-adventure and memoir, pre-finished-screenplay) invented or placed – for example, Robyn is told by an experienced camel-wrangler that if she encounters a feral camel in the wild and hesitates to kill it, she’s toast.  Before she knows it, she’s got a slobbering monster charging her way with nothing but a barely-tested rifle to ensure that this story continues.  Already in possession of a hardened personality, however, Robyn’s actions as she’s faced with these increasingly dire (and sometimes horrific) tests are neither surprising nor synthetic.  Wasikowska carries every moment of the film as naturally as if this were a documentary (a vibe that the filmmakers are undoubtedly reaching for, given this story’s origins and previous forms in media), and the growth of Robyn as a character never feels stage-managed.

It’s difficult not to give a film like this a feminist reading, but it almost hurts to call it a “feminist film,” simply for the reason that it should not be a shock when there’s a story about an independent woman who does something alone because she wants to.  Robyn decides to make this journey alone.  No one makes her.  Furthermore, she actually succeeds at what she sets out to do with little discussion about what biological snafus might prevent her from doing so (apart from having to adhere to native practices regarding this-and-that out in the places where travelers require guides).  She hooks up with Smolan once, and anyone with a basic sex drive can figure out why.  The next morning, when the heart-of-gold Smolan (with all of Adam Driver’s goofy charm) clumsily attempts to attach some strings, Robyn wants none of this chivalry, and on one of those rare occasions in film, the woman is not criticized for rebuffing a dude’s advances or accused of “playing with his feelings.”  As emotionally confused as Smolan might be, he gets it.  So should you.

The film also makes use of actual Australian natives in the roles of themselves, including the significant speaking role of Mr. Eddy (Roly Mintuma), who acts as a part-time guide in accordance with regional tradition.  Here, Curran has dodged yet another Western film trapping: using any old non-white person to play any old non-white ethnicity (for example, Native Americans played by pretty much anyone [including Johnny Depp], actors of various Eastern European descent playing “Arabs,” etc.).  This, combined with on-location shooting and natural characterization/plot movement at the expense of heightened drama, serves to create a work of incredible authenticity.

Tracks will inevitably be compared to (and unfortunately overshadowed by) Oscar Season’s Wild, another one-word-title, female explorer film based in reality, and I will doubtless be comparing them once I get to see it, but here’s my suggestion: let’s not stand them against each other.  Let’s not continue to think of films about brave, indomitable women as novelties, or worse, as a “genre.”  Let’s not read reviews of such films with the intention of only seeing one.  Let’s understand that the intrepid, courageous woman is not a character trope.  She’s reality, and she’s not going away.

Tracks (2014); based on the book by Robyn Davidson; written by Marion Nelson; directed by John Curran; starring Mia Wasikowska.

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