The Tracker – rated - SIMMERING

In the past, I’ve found the dialogue in Rolf de Heer’s films (especially The Quiet Room, 1996) a bit stilted, a bit too declamatory, a bit too “poetic”.  It is sparse, but also mannered, and in realistic films it jars.  But in this film that sparse, poetic, philosophical style really comes to into its own.  It works.

I think that’s because the film is not realism.  It is not naturalism.  It is more like a parable, or a morality play - and an excellent film as well.

The film opens on a painting of the landscape (by South Australian artist Peter Coad).  Then the painting becomes the real landscape (The Tracker was filmed at Arakoola Wilderness Sanctuary).  Then the characters are introduced.  We see each one and on the screen there’s a one to two line explanation of each man.  Then we are told that it is 1922, and we are “Somewhere in Australia”.

This lack of detail gives the film an epic feel almost immediately.  We are not watching individual people, we are watching archetypes.  They speak few words, which increases this effect.

David Gulpilil is one of Australia’s most talented actors, and we see too little of him.  Luckily, he is one screen in nearly every scene in The Tracker, and he is undeniably its star. Gulpilil's face when he sees the first “bush blacks” the group encounters is a picture of muted pain.  It speaks volumes.

This distinction between “bush blacks” is set up early in the film by each of the characters played by Gulpilil & Grant Page.  It sets up interesting tensions for Gulpilil’s character.  These are not spelled out, but they simmer in the background until the final scenes.  I loved the way de Heer deals with this issue.  Gulpilil’s character keeps needling Sweet’s character:  “We better keep after the other savage eh boss?” suggests Gulpilil.  Later, when Sweet proposes hanging a body up as a warning, Gulpilil says: “'S OK boss. No such thing as an innocent black. The only innocent black is a dead black.” And later still: “Nearly had 'im Boss. Nearly caught that Baaastard Savage today.”  Finally, in a stunning sequence which (I believe) is the one that moves the Tracker to his eventual action, Gary Sweet’s character tells him he'll hang.  Gulpilil says: “Poor Blackfella. Him been born for that noose, eh?” and they both laugh.  It is electrifying.

I’ve mentioned several times already that the film is not naturalistic. The music is also used in an unusual way too.  It is part of the narrative, rather than an unobtrusive adjunct.  It comments on the action, but de Heer (who co-wrote the songs which make up much of the sound track) does not overdo it.  Aboriginal Australian Archie Roach sings and, of course, is utterly heartbreaking.  But it is not a matter of emotional manipulation.  There’s something about the rhythm of the horses and the lithe walk of Gulpilil which, when matched with the music, is just perfect.  And when Roach sings in (native) language after the is a revolt it is chillingly effective.

You’ll have noticed in this review that I have been referring to “Sweet’s character, and Gulpilil, and not using the character’s names.  That is because they do not have names as such – only labels.  And the labels are not revealed until the final credits.  Then we find that they are called “The Tracker, the Fanatic, the Follower, the Veteran and the Fugitive.  But those labels are not used in the dialogue.  The characters never use each other’s names.  This has a most interesting effect on script.  It is alienating, and also seems to emphasise the archetypal nature of the material.

I see Sweet’s character, the Fanatic, as representing all white men of that time, and even up until today.  Newcomer Damon Gameau’s character is us - the audience, and white people in Australia today.  And the message I get from de Herr loud and clear is that we must act. In fact, both the Veteran  (played by ex-stunt-man-legend Grant Page and Follower (played by Rameau) apologise to Gulpilil early on.  They say “Sorry.”

Grant Page has a head like The Carpenter from Lewis Carroll’s poem The Walrus and the Carpenter.  He’s not just archetypal, he’s monumental.  He’s also very good in a difficult role.  Damon Rameau is effective as the Follower.  Gary Sweet is excellent in the unsympathetic role of the Fanatic.  He seems to have lost any vanity he might have had, and he hits almost every note, apart from what I found to be a false note in his long speech to Gulpilil about the Blacks, and his philosophy about raising their condition by 'diplomacy.'  But there I blame the script.  A man of few words doesn’t get chatty like that to justify his actions, particularly to a Black.  However, he is clearly a skilled horseman – he does a beautiful fall from off his wounded horse.

So much of this film feels experimental, and so much of it works.  But it also fits neatly into the classic western genre.  It is a quest, they must follow a trail, and they must wrestle with the landscape and its dangers, as well as find a dangerous man.  I thought often of Anthony Mann and the way he used the landscape to explore the landscape of the mind.  That’s also a very strong Aboriginal theme, which has been explored by Aboriginal artists such as the late Clifford Possum, Ginger Riley and Rusty Peters, to name a few.

And there was another classic cinema reference that struck me. When the sun rises behind a hanged man, the silhouette looks exactly like the signature style of like silent-film master Maurice Tourneur.

De Heer also gives us symbolism.  When the Follower finally acts, I noticed he was no longer wearing his Trooper’s hat and coat – he was suddenly wearing the Veteran’s hat.  But the next morning, when he attempts to take charge, he is wearing his uniform again.  

At this point in the film the landscape becomes huge, and we see how hostile the land is to the white man, but how much the black man feels at home. Director of Photography Ian Jones has done stunning work here.

This important film was made for, and partially financed by, the Adelaide Festival of Arts.  SBS Independent also stumped up funds.  Thank heavens.  Films like this would not be made otherwise.  And we would be all the poorer.

© Michèle M Asprey 2002

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