Think of an Anthony Mann Western made by an experimental film director and you get an indication of the challenging components of “The Tracker,” the story of a manhunt that is politically sensitive because of its depiction of atrocities perpetrated on aboriginals by a fanatical white cop. Commissioned by the Adelaide Festival of Arts, where it world preemed, Rolf de Heer’s film is in some ways a companion piece to Phillip Noyce’s “Rabbit-Proof Fence”: Both are period pieces on the “hot” theme of black-white relationships in Australia, and aboriginal actor David Gulpilil plays a tracker in both films. De Heer’s treatment, however, is completely different, and, despite its qualities, “The Tracker” will be far more difficult to market. Locally, strong reviews will be vital for niche distribution, with a buoyant ancillary life to be expected; internationally, a launch at a major fest could give this provocative Aussie pic the push it deserves. Local observers are speculating whether the Cannes fest would program both the De Heer and the Noyce films.
De Heer’s pictures, which include “Bad Boy Bubby” and “Dance Me to My Song,” have never taken easy options, and “The Tracker” is no exception. On the surface, this is a pared-down, muscular outdoor drama set in 1922 “somewhere in Australia,” in which an aboriginal tracker (Gulpilil), on foot, leads two mounted policemen and a civilian on the track of a black fugitive wanted for the murder of a white woman. The trail leads through extremely rugged terrain (the entire film was shot on location in the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary in South Australia) and, with its pristine widescreen images of taciturn men doggedly hunting their prey through a hostile environment with “savages” all around them, the comparisons with the classic location-based Hollywood outdoor film of the past (“The Naked Spur” comes to mind) are inevitable.
However, De Heer takes several radical steps to undermine audience expectations. The story starts abruptly, with no preliminaries whatsoever, after the hunt has already begun. The characters are introduced with titles briefly describing them; one title says that “little is known” of the Tracker. The others include the Fanatic (Gary Sweet), the Follower (newcomer Damon Gameau) and theVeteran (a rare acting appearance by Australia’s most famous stuntman, Grant Page). As aud is not given information about the crime for which the barely seen fugitive (Noel Wilton) is being pursued, or about how this small posse was formed, one is deliberately kept off-kilter from the start.
Also unusual is the use of songs to counterpoint the drama. With music by Graham Tardif and lyrics by the writer-director, the 10 songs are expressively sung by aboriginal Archie Roach. At the film’s world preem, Roach sang live. The plaintive, haunting laments add immensely to the somber mood created by the film.
But De Heer’s most radical departure is eliminating scenes of violence and replacing them with graphic paintings by artist Peter Coad. Thus, when the Fanatic massacres a group of peaceful aboriginals, viewers hear the shots and the screams, but see a painting of the scene (specially designed for the Scope screen). This device is repeated throughout the film, and while many will find it a successful and legitimate attempt to find an alternative to scenes of violence, others will doubtless find it a turnoff, possibly impacting on the film’s commercial chances.
It becomes gradually clear that the Tracker has an agenda of his own (he always keeps the party a half-day’s ride from the fugitive); although treated by the Fanatic almost as a slave, theTracker is the one really controlling events.
De Heer takes his time, perhaps slightly too much time, to tell this story, and saves most of his narrative surprises for the last reels. For the most part, dialogue is used sparingly, with the notable exception of a lengthy monologue spoken by the Fanatic late in the journey, where he reveals the depths of his racism and paternalism.
In his most substantial role since “Walkabout,” top-billed Gulpilil is an extraordinary presence as the wise aboriginal who quietly sets about subverting the expedition he’s supposed to be guiding. With his expressive face and lithe body movements, the actor brings iconic status to the role. There’s even a mystical element here (“Who ARE you?” demands the Fanatic in fear and surprise at one key moment).
Sweet gives his best performance on film as the fixated bigot, a man who thinks nothing of using neck chains on his tracker, or of shooting, and then hanging, innocent people. In his first film, Gameau brings subtle strength to the role of the awkward greenhorn who is eventually so horrified by the atrocities committed by his commanding officer that he is forced to take a stand against him, while Page inhabits the role of a grizzled, seen-it-all veteran with distinction.
Ian Jones’ classically composed widescreen lensing is outstanding, bringing depth and enormous space to this small-scale drama of man’s inhumanity to man. One especially memorable image, which is photographed against a blazing sunrise, shows, in silhouette, a dead man hanging from a tree; it’s an unforgettable moment in an imposing film that tackles a serious theme with dignity and even audacity and that features production values of the highest quality.