Review: Desert-walking movie 'Tracks' would be better as a pure mood piece
Mia Wasikowska walks 1700 miles across Australia's deserts in "Tracks," in a story that defies triumph-of-the-spirit cliches but gets some of them anyway.
Director: John Curran
Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver
2 (out of 5) Globes
At first blush, “Tracks” would seem like a no-brainer triumph-of-the-human-spirit deal. It concerns one Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska), a young woman who traversed some 1700 miles across Australia’s deserts, accompanied only by four camels and a cute dog. But a closer examination reveals it doesn’t have enough parts. The trek wasn’t easy and had its share of drama. It just doesn’t have enough for a meaty film. And Davidson is a tough nut to crack: She’s a loner who makes the trip in part because being in the desert means there’s a strong chance she won’t run into another human.
So “Tracks” is facing an uphill battle, but instead of adding more story than there is it actually, wisely, embraces the minimalism. It’s a mood piece crossed with a travelogue, where the most important aspect isn’t actors — although Wasikowska is admirably remote and steely — but the cinematography. The credits make a point of citing as inspiration both Davidson’s memoirs and the stunning pictures snapped by National Geographic photojournalist Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), who periodically swung in on Davidson’s progress. Every shot is a beaut, finding untold ways of making terrain that is for the most part same-y look endlessly fresh. What should be repetitive instead becomes relentlessly new.
That’s the good part. The bad part is that it doesn’t entirely embrace minimalism, although it doesn’t entirely not embrace it either. Instead it aims for a frustrating middle ground. And so we get Wasikowska periodically intruding on the narration track, stray attempts at backstory and psychology, even a semi-romance subplot between Davidson and Smolan (which happily — if not for Smolan — peters out). But it backfires. Any time it adds something, it only stresses how lean this story is. And it doesn’t help that all three of those things are weak. Davidson only speaks in banalities, the psychology is pat and the romance…well, it at least affords visits from the always welcome (if a bit ubiquitous) Driver, who crashes this moody, quiet piece with weird and nervous giggling.
Although things end on a nicely muted note, it remains a film that would please neither side — not those looking for a story of overcoming (very insane) odds nor those hoping to groove out on an experimental narrative. The ideal version of this would have been a hypnotic mood piece — just walking and pretty pictures, with the occasional dab into phantasmagoria as exhaustion and sunstroke sets in. It's a film that avoids empowering movie cliches, except when it doesn't.
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