The Australian import The Tracker is the first significant movie to find its way into American theaters in 2005. Writer-director Rolf de Heer has fashioned a powerfully acted, fascinating allegory about manifest destiny in which an Aboriginal tracker leads a trio of white men—two mounted policemen and an aging recruit—deep into the Australian wilds in search of an Aboriginal fugitive wanted for allegedly murdering a white woman. The movie has the shape and feel of a mythic narrative that, both despite and because of its small scale and understated tone, packs an emotional wallop. De Heer composes The Tracker like a musical movement, as a series of narrative passages each strung together with Graham Tardif’s atmospheric blues-rock score featuring the gravely yet supple vocals of Aboriginal signer Archie Roach. It’s not often that a movie radiates such subtle and insinuating power simply on the basis of its structure.
That The Tracker’s score is anachronous with its 1922 period setting jars us out of any notion that this is a historical piece. The Australian setting provides de Heer the archetypes—The Tracker, The Fanatic, The Follower and The Veteran—with which to populate his narrative. But, through their interplay, he reinforces more universal themes that reverberate across the movie. Another effective touch is the use of original artwork—paintings by Peter Coad—done up in a deliberately primitive style that de Heer cuts away to during the story’s particularly savage moments. This decision pays off eloquently because it eschews the literal depictions of violence—something we’re benumbed to in the movies by now—and replaces them with abstract depictions via Coad’s evocative paintings, impressing upon us that the racial violence at play in the story has antecedents in our collective and distant past.
As the amiable but mysterious Tracker, David Gulpilil (who has already scored Best Actor awards in his native Australia) stands out among an excellent cast. He is ingratiating toward his “boss,” The Fanatic (Gary Sweet), and he good-naturedly bears the brunt of The Fanatic’s racism. He witnesses The Fanatic inflicting humiliation and worse upon his Aboriginal kinsmen. It’s mortifying to watch his dehumanization even as you realize there’s more to The Tracker than meets the eye. For, beneath his genial eyes and smile, the ingredients for revenge are slowly simmering. Meanwhile, de Heer allows his archetypes to fulfill their purpose: The Fanatic rails against the natives and harangues the young Follower who, after unwittingly taking part in a slaughter of innocent Aborigines, begins to question his moral legitimacy. Hovering around the edges is The Veteran (Grant Page), who, for the sake of his own sanity, can’t afford to ask such questions; he “only works here.”
The Tracker follows an admirably clear-cut narrative line, without hedging or redundant plotting. The thematic clarity of de Heer’s script and direction is admirable considering how many ineptly told stories come across our screens every year. That makes its final act in which de Heer’s assertion that Aboriginal justice, like white man’s justice, is no less racially motivated and no less unmerciful feel thoroughly earned. The movie’s detached sense of moral outrage, its skewering of the idea of manifest destiny and its mythic framework makes The Tracker a worthy addition to the catalogue of socially-conscious westerns and, incidentally, a perfect companion to another elegiac study in frontier justice and moral arrogance: Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.