At a low point during her 2,700-kilometre trek across the Australian outback, Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) tells photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver) that her trip is "pointless: every day I load a pile of junk, I walk 20 miles and I unload a pile of junk."
There are people who will feel that way about this movie, which is, admittedly, long on atmosphere and short on action -- and what action there is takes place at a slow walk.
Based on Davidson's memoir of the same name, Tracks follows the 27-year-old on her daunting 1977 desert voyage from the town of Alice Springs, essentially in the middle of Australia, to the Indian Ocean on the west coast, accompanied only by her dog, Diggity, and four scene-stealing feral camels she has trained to carry her gear.
When people ask her why, her only answer is "Why not?" and Tracks suffers from that lack of driving motive. Robyn's voyage of self-discovery is mostly internal. Her feelings can be conveyed in a written travelogue, but it's difficult to get inside her head, especially when her main conversational companions are spitting, bellowing dromedaries and not very much happens, either dire or revelatory.
Robyn spends two years just preparing for her travels, working menial jobs in exchange for her camels. She bridles at Smolan's interest in her plans -- she really just wants to be alone for six to nine months -- but is eventually swayed when he proposes that he shoot pictures of her at points along her route for National Geographic. In exchange for access, the magazine will pay for her supplies.
The wide-open landscapes captured by cinematographer Mandy Walker are not romanticized -- there's stark beauty, but it's countered with wide swaths of scrubby brush and barren, empty roads stretching toward the horizon.
The film spends a lot of time with Robyn slogging wordlessly through this emptiness. There are dramatic moments, to be sure, and several tense encounters, but Tracks is not 127 Hours. (Ill-advised flashbacks attempt to explain Robyn's single-minded devotion, but they feel simplistic.)
There's no question the film perks up when Robyn interacts with other people, whether it's her banter with Smolan (with whom she has a somewhat desultory affair) or her conversations with Mr. Eddie, an Australian aboriginal elder who accompanies her through a section of land that's considered sacred territory and off-limits to white women. Mr. Eddie, played by the engaging Roly Mintuma, speaks little English, but that doesn't stop him from regaling Robyn with stories as they walk.
The Canberra-born Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre) gets to use her own accent for once, and she makes the prickly, antisocial Davidson somewhat appealing, even if we never quite get a handle on her or her motivations. It's to the actor's credit that a moment as simple as swimming in an unexpected pool can feel deeply joyful.
Robyn says at the outset, "I was sick of carrying around the self-indulgent negativity that was so much the malaise of my generation, my sex and my class." It's never clear if her journey helped with that malaise, but Tracks is an unusual portrait of an unusual woman and a singular landscape.