By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 3, 2013 at 6:30AM
In 1975, a soul-searching young Australian woman named Robyn Davidson set out to travel solo from Alice Springs across the vast, empty desert to reach the Indian Ocean some 2,000 miles away. Aided only by a trio of camels and her dog, Davidson eventually completed the voyage and wrote a popular National Geographic article about her experiences with photographs by Rick Smolan, who occasionally accompanied her. The details of that expedition form the core of "Tracks," John Curran's expressionistic adaption of Davidson's voyage. True to the nature of the experience, "Tracks" largely involves its protagonist trekking across a vacant landscape with occasional stops along the way. While "Tracks" certainly does justice to the splendor of the surroundings, it never manages to justify the expansion of the material into a feature.
However, with Mia Wasikowska in the lead role, Davidson herself comes across as a wholly believable dreamer whose frustrations with the pat nature of the civilized world imbue her mission with an engrossing purpose. "I was at home nowhere," she says in the opening voiceover, setting the stage for both the strengths and weaknesses of this beautifully realized drama.
Impressively photographed by Mandy Walker (whose credits, appropriately, include Baz Luhrmann's "Australia"), "Tracks" almost exclusively takes place in the expansive outdoors as Davidson ventures further and further off the grid. The wide open terrain radiates with golden hue throughout, so that even as it frequently staggers, it's a wonder to behold. The relationship between people and animals is equally well-constructed, with scenes in which Davidson tames her camels and faces down feral ones in the wild as suspenseful and involving as any CGI trickery. Wasikowska's investment in the drama holds these scenes together, her generally humorless scowl conveying a mixture of confusion and brash commitment to continuing through the harsh conditions before her.
But the details of that mission don't hold enough appeal to match the philosophical intrigue that Davidson establishes early on when discussing her motivation. Complaining about "the negativity that was the malaise of my generation," she expresses a desire to leave society behind. While achieving that, the key plot device to help her mull over her situation arrives in the form of a bland relationship subplot as Smolan, the photographer, repeatedly expresses interest in helping Davidson stay the course. Played with goofy awkwardness by Adam Driver, Smolan is a sweet-natured suitor who can do no wrong, and his part is noticeably underwritten given that he's the only other major character in the movie.
When Davidson befriends an elderly Aboriginal and then attempts to apply his one-with-the-land philosophy as she staggers through the final stages of her trek, Curran successfully introduces a few auspicious surprises that threaten her safety. But just when Davidson's situation gets dire enough to hint at the makings of a tense survival drama, Curran circles back to a completion of her one-note emotional trajectory. Marion Nelson's script lacks dialogue on par with the lyrical visuals. "I'm so alone," she moans at one point to Smolan. "We all are," he replies.
But that's not to say that Wasikowska doesn't fight back. Singled-handedly carrying the story to its inevitable conclusion, she gives "Tracks" a level of depth that nothing else in the movie can provide. "I think you have a people problem," she's told at one point during a conversation about her predilection for staying isolated. The observation resonates in Wasikowska's strongest scenes, all of which she handles solo. Yet it's not enough to make the trip itself into a compelling journey, which is an issue in a movie entirely focused on trying to convey just that.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The Weinstein Company picked up "Tracks" over Labor Day weekend after the film premiered to mixed reactions in Venice and Telluride ahead of its Toronto screening. Some acclaim for Wasikowska's performance may help it gain visibility in release, but on the whole it's a tough sell.