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Both an incredible (and occasionally harrowing) adventure and an uncompromising, tough character study, “Tracks,” directed by John Curran, has already been deemed by certain purveyors of conventional movie wisdom as the lesser of two women-into-the-wild movies opening this fall. I haven’t seen the picture that’s been getting more of the you-know-what buzz—that would be “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon and, like this movie, adapted from a true story—but I can tell you that whatever your movie plans, you miss “Tracks” at your aesthetic pleasure peril. It’s a truly outstanding cinema experience.
The movie tells the story of Robyn Davidson, to whom the viewer is introduced in the mid-‘70s. In narration, Davidson (played with incredible stamina and quite appealing intimations of humility by Mia Wasikowska) describes her disenchantment with the society of other people, and how tired she is of suffering the depredations visited upon “my sex and class.” In more conventional movies in which a young woman undertakes a nearly 2,000 mile solo journey across a desert, there’s likely to be a lot of hoo-hah about the search for self and spirituality. Not here. Wasikowska’s Robyn just wants to be alone, with her camels and her beloved dog.
Nobody makes it easy for her. First she has to learn to train camels. On the edge of the Australian outback, she interacts with several hostile characters, and animals, before getting her retinue together. Once she’s got that, she realizes she needs some financing. She pitches a chronicle of her journey to “National Geographic” magazine, and they go for it. The catch is they want a photographer to drop in on her periodically to take the sort of pictures for which the magazine was so well known. No, not those pictures. Anyway, so much for being alone.
The photographer is an amiable fellow named Rick, played by Adam Driver with none of the outsize idiosyncrasy the actor has brought to his roles on the TV series “Girls” or his bit in the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Rick is merely a nice guy, and he’s kind of perplexed by Robyn, as are many of the people she encounters as she prepares and then explores the desert. “You don’t have to be unlucky to die out there,” one doubter advises her. The further out she gets, the more instances of poor luck occur, but also revelations about her past that speak to the compulsion that drives her on her journey. But the journey is not just one of catharsis for Robyn. Along the way, she defines her own idea of freedom, making her own existence a manifestation of her rather radical philosophy. The romance one might have envisioned between Robyn and Rick never materializes—yes, spoiler alert, she does sleep with the guy, but you get the idea she’s mainly doing it to shut him up. The steely character Curran, screenwriter Marion Nelson, and Wasikowska create out of Davidson is not meant to cozy up to the viewer but to present a challenge to him or her.
“Tracks” isn’t interested in falsely flattering its audience, but it is interested in ravishing it: the nature imagery presented in widescreen by the director and cinematographer Mandy Walker is breathtaking; striking and poetic, but very different from that of “Walkabout,” the 1971 outback exploration classic that this movie doesn’t really recall all that much despite some thematic parallels. That’s a compliment. “Tracks” has a flavor, a resonance all its own. Curran, returning to the continent where he began his movie career after a period in America that saw him making the too-little-seen drama “Stone,” seems to me a consistently underrated director with a distinctive voice and vision: both come through loud and clear in this movie.