The Tracker

The new issue of Paste magazine (number 16) is currentlly on newsstands, and it features a number of articles I’ve written, including introductions to Australian cinema and Robert Bresson (highlighting New Yorker’s L’Argent and Criterion’s upcoming Au hasard Balthazar DVDs), and a short write-up on Welles’ F for Fake.

One of the films I wanted to include in my Australian article, but didn’t because I couldn’t obtain the region 4 DVD in time, was Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (2002), a potent and formally inventive depiction of three white, mounted police in the 1920s who chase a black Aboriginal fugitive deep into the bush. The police are guided by a forced-labor Aboriginal tracker, played by Walkabout‘s David Gulpilil, who played a similar but much less developed role in Philip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence the same year. The film’s drama rises from the tensions of the Tracker’s position; his professional efficiency versus his growing alarm at the officers’ unbridled racism, and his duty to the law versus the oppressive system it represents.

The film exhibits some of the dominant themes in Australian cinema–its respect for nature (recorded in stately compositions), sense of isolation (the four characters are alone throughout most of the film), emphasis on mateship (loyalties become crucial when tensions flare), and even its valorization of the underdog: the drama turns on the Tracker’s ability to use his lowly position to gain the upper hand.

The Tracker has been called a neo-Western, and that genre context extends further than the film’s visual motifs of desert, felt hats and horses, into its minimalist dramatic set-up and broad ethical strokes. In fact, each of the characters is named in the credits according to an archetype (The Veteran, The Fanatic, The Follower) and introduced in the film with text (a man who has been drafted, a man who rejects statistics, a man unaccustomed to expeditions). By foregrounding these elements, the film emphasizes its fable qualities and sets the stage for its moral structure, which hinges on the merging of power and racism and the possibility of resistance.

The story provides the foundation for a character study with strong ensemble performances; as The Tracker, Gulpilil is particularly memorable with his weathered face and seemingly effortless ability to transition between mysterious nobility and clownish nonchalance. In fact, Gulpilil is so good at exhibiting the former quality that he is often relegated to playing minor, Noble Aboriginal roles in lesser films; it’s nice to see him granted more room to flesh out a character here.

Like The Graduate or Magnolia, the film is also inseparable from its striking vocal score, ten songs composed by Graham Tardiff with lyrics by director De Heer, sung by Aboriginal singer Archie Roach in strong, melodic tones. The string guitar work and folksy simplicity enlivens the ideological tenor of the songs’ social protest, and the film is edited around them. One standout sequence offers a minimalist close-up of each of the main characters trudging through the bush as Roach croons about their motivations: “All men must choose the path they walk.”

Another unusual, but effective, element in the film’s design is its use of brilliantly-hued paintings by Peter Coad to represent sudden bursts of violence. The paintings are startling and descriptive, yet abstracted to a degree that helps distance the viewer from what might’ve been a more typically voyeuristic reaction to the violence. The paintings create space to process the scenes on a more conceptual level rather than a purely visceral one.

Like the aforementioned Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Tracker is one of the most recent films to confront the injustices of Australia’s 20th century colonization with admirable dramatic intensity and formal polish, contributing to the country’s ongoing investigation of its own cultural history.

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