American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"The Tracker" is one of those rare films that deserves to be called haunting. It tells the sort of story we might find in an action Western, but transforms it into a fable or parable. Four men set out into the Australian wilderness to track down an accused killer, and during the course of their journey, true justice cries out to be done. The men never use their names, but the credits identify them as The Fanatic, a merciless officer; The Follower, a greenhorn new to the territory; The Veteran, a older man of few words, and The Tracker, an aborigine who will lead them to their quarry, also an aborigine.
The live action is intercut with paintings of events in the story, and the soundtrack includes songs about what happens. We assume the story is based on fact that became legend, and that the songs commemorate it; several critics have said the paintings are "probably aboriginal" and done at the time (1922). Not so. The story is an original by the director, Rolf de Heer; the paintings were done on location by Peter Coad, and the songs were written by the director and Graham Tardif. They have created their own legend from their own facts, but it feels no less real; it is a distillation from Australia's shameful history with the aboriginals, and contains echoes of the hunt for escaped aboriginal children in "Rabbit-Proof Fence."
De Heer used a small crew and shot in the wilderness, camping out every night, and we see the film's events not as heightened action but as a long, slow trek across a vast landscape. It seems to be unpopulated, but no; on the first night, when the kid gets out his ukulele and starts to sing, the officer quiets him so they can hear anyone approaching. "You won't hear them," the older man says. "They're there," says the tracker.
They are there, everywhere, invisible, as spears materialize out of emptiness and pick off their horses and then one of the men. Once they come upon the camp of a small aboriginal family group. These people are peaceful, the tracker tells the officer, but some of them are wearing discarded army uniforms, and so the officer kills them all. The greenhorn is shaken and distraught: "They were innocent." The tracker, who says what the officer likes to hear, tells him, "The only innocent black is a dead black."