Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Tracker

2002, Australia, directed by Rolf de Heer

I find that Rolf de Heer's films are sometimes more interesting on paper than in the final execution, but if anything the reverse is true in this case: The Tracker is a fully realised revisiting of the (Australian) western, with a stunning central performance by the great Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil; he's had a run of strong material in the past decade, but this film allows him to finally fulfill the promise shown in Nicolas Roeg's 1971 Walkabaout. The action is stripped down to the point of mythology, underlined by the characters' names (The Tracker, The Fanatic and so forth), as an Aboriginal tracker leads three white men in search of another Aboriginal man, who is accused of killing a white woman.

The white men vary in their view of native Australians, but none of them is unable to confront the contradiction between their view of Aboriginal people as savages, and their reliance on the tracker's acute intelligence and knowledge. The tracker himself fully exploits this contradiction, unsettling the men with his self-awareness, and wickedly black humour, while also making use of the white men's fear of the Australian bush (the malevolence of the outback is a recurring theme in Australian cinema, crystallized in films like Picnic at Hanging Rock but appearing in completely different contexts like that of Wolf Creek too). De Heer's script avoids easy answers, and is careful not to portray the Aboriginal people in insultingly saintly ways: violence is not unknown in their culture, either, for example. Visually, the film is stunning, and arresting in the way in which it cuts away to paintings at moments of violence. The soundtrack also contributes to an uniquely textured film, with Gulpilil's intelligent performance adding rich layers of emotional nuance.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States