Australian cinema has always been prone to chronic understatement. In the 1970s, commentators isolated the recessive hero (a passive observer at life’s parade, wallowing in failure) as a peculiarly Australian screen character. Later, it became obvious that it was also the films themselves that receded, shrinking away from every opportunity for sex, violence, confrontation and catharsis.
There is a distaste for the spectacular in our films. This is evident not only in the timid, half-baked productions of those reared in television, but also the work of aesthetes and intellectuals hailing from the independent sphere, whose oversensitive, ethical qualms often override their feeling for good cinema.
In this context, Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker is a triumph. One of the most original and striking films made in this country for a long time, it manages to translate its anti-spectacular sensibility into a well-worked, artistic form. And, just when you suspect that it is about to take the familiar escape-route away from a dramatic climax, it follows its premise all the way to a shatteringly logical end.
This triumph is doubly surprising coming from de Heer (Bad Boy Bubby, 1994), a director whose work I have always had trouble admiring. Here he takes the naive approach that has been so clunky in his earlier films and transforms it into a bold, minimalist simplicity that really enhances the material.
With its tradition of bushranger films and The Man from Snowy River (1982) epics, Australian cinema has often been close to the American western, although this association seems to prompt shame in many cultural nationalists. Historic tales of the conflict between Aboriginal and settler communities lend themselves particularly well to treatment within the terms of the western genre, as Tim Burstall’s underrated The Naked Country (1985) amply shows.
The Tracker’s debt, however, is less to classic westerns by John Ford or Anthony Mann than to the more unusual, modernist westerns of Monte Hellman, particularly The Shooting (1966). Four emblematic characters – the Fanatic (Gary Sweet), the Veteran (Grant Page), the Follower (Damon Gameau) and the Tracker (David Gulpilil) – travel together. They are in search of an Aboriginal fugitive.
The Fanatic’s brutally racist manners are appalling. The Veteran and the Follower are typical go-between figures, obeying their boss’s demands with great uneasiness and reluctance. But the most intriguing figure is the Tracker himself, magnificently played by Gulpilil, a man of few words who seems at first, a compliant subject in the service of the Fanatic. His evolution is reminiscent of that of the indigenous hero in Walter Hill’s revisionist western Geronimo (1993).
There is violence in this story but de Heer makes a bold choice as to how to depict it. Each time a violent act occurs, even if it lasts only a few seconds, the normal film image is replaced by a painting, offering a stylised tableau of the event. At last, the Australian taste for understatement expresses itself in an arresting, valid way.
The philosopher Gilles Deleuze once mused on those films that were simultaneously journeys and ballads. Contemporary Australian cinema loves its literal journeys (as in Beneath Clouds, 2002, and Rabbit-Proof Fence, 2002), but the ballad aspect of The Tracker is unique. Inverting the usual relationship between a story told in images and a secondary musical accompaniment, the film places the splendid songs performed by Archie Roach (composed by Graham Tardif) firmly in the driver’s seat.
At its height, with this fusion of music, painting and cinema, The Tracker reminded me of the Iranian masterpiece Gabbeh (1996). This is not the sort of lofty comparison one usually reaches for when reviewing Australian movies.
The Tracker tends to divide its audiences. There has already been much criticism of it as a simplistic, politically correct comic book of goodies and baddies designed to flatter those who hold knee-jerk pro-reconciliation views.
This view seems to me to underestimate the film considerably, both as a political and an artistic gesture. The Tracker derives its unique power from displacing current political debates into a primal, melodramatic, even mythic form. This displacement allows for a tough, uncompromising treatment.
De Heer’s message is not a soft, bland, humanist plea to set aside differences and become ‘one people’. It is quite the opposite. It recognises the existence of two distinct laws, white and black, and confronts head-on how these laws might clash with and negotiate each other. Its bleak but deeply pleasing conclusion explains the Tracker’s earlier, cryptic words: “God respects Aboriginal law as much he respects white man’s law … maybe more”.
© Adrian Martin August 2002