– 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
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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