Whenever Robyn Davidson, the heroine of John Curran’s golden-hued Aussie travelogue Tracks, is asked why she’s embarking on a 1,700-mile trek alone on foot across the Western Australian desert, she replies with a terse “I just want to be by myself,” or just as often doesn’t answer the question at all. As played by Mia Wasikowska, Robyn is hyper-aware of other people’s attempts to pathologize her, and she’s hellbent on shutting said attempts down; considering the condescending treatment she receives from farmers, reporters, and her own family, one can hardly blame her for developing an allergy to human contact. Robyn is equal parts awe-inspiring and unnerving: As her journey progresses, she accumulates as much vitriol as she does wonder, and her voiceover observations are often darkly funny (“How do you tell a nice person you wish they’d just crawl in a hole and die?”), making her something of a scorched-earth antidote to Sandra Bullock’s bland everyman in Gravity.
Robyn also provides a meta-commentary of sorts on Tracks’s strengths and weaknesses. She’s repulsed by would-be love interest Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), the National Geographic photographer she’s forced to cooperate with in order to receive funding for her expedition, and though her dismissive treatment of him throughout the film is a nice reversal of gender expectations, their relationship fails to connect to the greater arc of her journey in any meaningful way. At best, Rick acts as a foil to Robyn in his incompetence; at one point, he offends an Aboriginal community to such a degree that it forces Robyn to re-route her expedition, but even this sequence is a bit ham-fisted in its moralizing. Tracks also slowly introduces a traumatic backstory for Robyn, positing her present-day eccentricities as the product of childhood abandonment issues. In other words, the film does to Robyn the exact thing she most abhors by pathologizing her.
Thankfully, the majority of Tracks hews close to her journey and its moment-to-moment crises and victories. The film’s most thrilling moments hit like bolts of lightning: a giant snake slithering across Robyn’s neck as she sleeps; the sudden disappearance (and later, miraculous reappearance) of her four beloved camels into the endless arid landscape. The desert’s grandiose beauty, combined with Robyn’s general reticence, allows Curran to use operatic visuals without seeming indulgent; truly, the storytelling must be visually expressionist, considering that even Robyn’s voiceover commentary becomes sparser and sparser as her travels continue and her solitude overwhelms her. The real-life Robyn Davidson made this journey in 1977, and the feminist bent of her quest nicely shadows the film without ever being stated aloud, but one can’t help but imagine if she had lived 100 years earlier, the silent film Victor Sjöström could have made with this story.