“You don’t have to be unlucky to die out there,” a grizzled camel dealer warns young Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) as she reveals her plans to travel across a 1,700-mile stretch of Australian desert alone. Davidson was very much a real person who carried out such an endeavor in 1977, and though John Curran’s “Tracks” (based on her account of the same name) can scarcely suggest this young woman’s motivations beyond golden-hued flashbacks of empty nooses and dead dogs, his drama effectively conveys the exhaustive nature of her trek all the same… maybe all too well.
Departing from Alice Springs with four tamed camels and a loyal dog in tow, Robyn was occasionally joined by National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver, going full Goldblum), as the magazine had sponsored her journey. He serves as an earnest counterpoint to Robyn’s no-nonsense attitude, although she’s eager to make the most of his company whenever other gawking journalists or just plain loneliness draws near. Robyn makes passing mention of how little she cares for other people, but Curran (“Stone,” “The Painted Veil”) and writer Marion Nelson more often seize upon her character’s mommy issues and general romanticism towards the Outback rather than exploring potentially deep-seated misanthropy. After all, she’s not too sour to welcome an Aboriginal guide (Roly Mintuma) when local customs require it.
While hardly insightful as a character study, “Tracks” can’t help but flourish as an Aussie travelogue, with cinematographer Mandy Walker doing justice to these vast and harsh environments. Robyn’s journey brings to mind the questionable self-reliance of “Into the Wild” and the environmental extremes of “The Way Back” (both better films), and the pure resolve of Wasikowska’s performance proves more grounding throughout than Curran’s lingering looks at animal carcasses, countless camel reaction shots or needless callbacks to obviously handy advice (“If you come across a bull camel out there, you shoot it,” the aforementioned animal expert insists in the first act just before handing our heroine a rifle worthy of Chekhov).
Compared to recent survival stories like the refreshingly stripped-down “All is Lost” or the proudly spectacular “Gravity,” “Tracks” seems sturdy at best, a movie that, like the very event it chronicles, only seems to have been accomplished because it could be. The result is alternately beautiful and dull, which arguably makes it a faithful encapsulation of the adventure itself.
SCORE: 7.3 / 10
"Tracks" was screened for our critic at the Telluride Film Festival, and will screen at TIFF on Tuesday, September 10th.