In 1977, 27-year-old Robyn Davidson walked across the Australian Outback to the Indian Ocean. The journey took her nine months. In 2014, director John Curran brought her story to the screen. The film is 112 minutes, but feels as long and as arduous as Davidson’s real-life trek.
Based on the extreme flâneur’s travel memoir of the same name, Tracks takes its first shaky steps with Davidson (the ever-so of the moment Mia Wasikowska) arriving in the small town of Alice Springs in 1975. Curran makes cursory attempts at establishing the uglier undertones of the time, lingering on men leering at Davidson from the back of a pickup and capturing her watch an Aborigine woman get violently kicked out of a bar. Tracks then drops these tricky issues and turns to Davidson’s attempt, as she explains in narration, to shake off “the malaise” of her “generation, sex and class” – a 1,700-mile journey across Western Australia by foot. To prep for the walkabout, the young woman sets up camp in this dust bowl of a town with her black lab, Diggity, and learns how to train wild camels (needed to carry her gear).
In the first of many forced scenes that exist only to move the stunted plot forward, one day Davidson’s friend arrives for a visit, bringing along National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (the equally ever-so of the moment Adam Driver). Struck by Davidson, Smolan suggests she has her trip sponsored by his magazine. Unfortunately for the introverted aspiring explorer, the publication stipulates that the chatty photog rendezvous with her along the way to document what she wanted to be a solo trip. But being strapped for cash, Davidson accepts these conditions, and two years and four coached camels later she finally starts making those titular tracks.
Having already dug itself into a hole with this prolonged prologue, Tracks stumbles into quicksand once Davidson sets off across the desert. There’s no doubt what Davidson accomplished in actual fact is anything short of impressive, but Curran’s direction and Marion Nelson’s script fail to convey any of this – the desert landscape, both deadly and majestic, is stalely captured with repeated aerial shots of cracked earth; Davidson and Smolan, who become lovers, interact with quips as dry as the terrain they’re traversing.
It’s too bad, since Tracks could have offset the gender imbalance that’s so prevalent in the “on the road” genre. Outside of Thelma & Louise, such travel-based excursions of self-realization are normally the realm of those with XY chromosomes (Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop). Or if there is a woman in the picture, she’s usually part of a doomed romantic duo (Bonnie and Clyde, Natural Born Killers). This is especially true of sand-swept stories, which truly put the “man” in “no man’s land”: the lone cowboys of 1950s westerns, David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia, the wandering bros in Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, any number of modern war films set in parched-earth conflict zones (Three Kings, The Hurt Locker). So when Davidson proclaims, “I just want to be by myself,” the moment is filled with vast potential – here’s a female lead heading off on her own.
The issue is that her character isn’t compelling enough to carry this one-woman quest. Wasikowska does her best to convey the strain of the near cross-continent walk (embracing the role by growing out her leg and armpit hair for verisimilitude), but beyond squinting into the harsh sun, the actress isn’t left with much to work with: Any attempts at fleshing out Davidson’s backstory are reduced to softly lit, slow-mo childhood flashbacks. Because of this heavy-handed tone, Davidson comes across as flat as the desert, which hardly makes her tracks worth following.