The Tracker Review
The Australian Outback, 1922. A posse of three men, led by a racist policeman (Gary Sweet), a veteran (Grant Page) and a younger man (Damon Gameau) go in search of an Aboriginal man accused of murdering a white woman. Joining them in the search is an Aboriginal tracker (David Gulpilil).
One prominent theme in Australian films so far in the twenty-first century is the treatment, past and present, of the country's indigenous peoples. The Mabo case of 1992, brought by Torres Strait Islander Eddie Mabo (who died of cancer five months before the verdict), was important in establishing Aboriginal land rights. (Previously, British colonists had regarded the country as "terra nullius", that is, belonging to no one until they arrived.) In 2008, the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered an apology to the "stolen generation" of indigenous Australians, a history dramatised in Rabbit-Proof Fence amongst others. Some of this comes across as white liberal handwringing: I do, for example, find Rabbit-Proof Fence somewhat overrated, even if its heart is undoubtedly in the right place. On the other hand, there have been a rise of filmmakers from indigenous backgrounds, for example (in chronological order of debut feature) Rachel Perkins, Ivan Sen, Warwick Thornton and Wayne Blair, whose films are very different in style and genre but all manage to "smuggle" their themes into them more or less overtly.
Rold de Heer is a white man, born in the Netherlands but emigrating to Australia at the age of eight. In a career that spans to date fourteen cinema features, one online-only feature (Twelve Canoes, his follow-up to Australian Film Institute Best Film award winner Ten Canoes) and work on television and in documentary, he seems to have been determined never to make the same film twice, as his films have included science fiction (Epsilon, Incident at Raven's Gate), very black comedy (Bad Boy Bubby), a children's film (Tale of a Tiger, his debut), magic realism (The Old Man Who Read Love Stories) and a science fiction comedy shot as a silent in black and white Academy Ratio with a handcranked camera (Dr Plonk, which was made before The Artist) amongst others. The measure of de Heer as a filmmaker is hard to grasp for the British as of his films, only Incident at Raven's Gate (under the title Encounter at Raven's Gate), Bad Boy Bubby and Ten Canoes have seen the light of a British projector outside festival screenings and Charlie's Country, his most recent film, went straight to DVD. That leaves ten features which have never had commercial releases in the UK.
De Heer has dealt with indigenous issues more than once, often going further than other white filmmakers by involving his indigenous colleagues in the filmmaking process and in the case of Ten Canoes and Charlie's Country shooting the films mainly in their languages. That's less the case with The Tracker, which in genre terms is an outback western, but you can see the roots of his later concerns. Another hallmark of de Heer's work is a bold experimentation in filmmaking technique, such as using thirty-two different cinematographers (one per exterior scene) on Bad Boy Bubby and the previously mentioned latterday silent Dr Plonk. In The Tracker, place and time are certainly specific – the film was shot on location in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia – but de Heer goes for a timeless, fabulistic feel. None of the characters (a credited cast of five, with some Aboriginal extras) have names. De Heer uses distancing devices such as cutting away at certain points (often scenes of violence) to paintings provided for the film by Peter Coad, and using songs on the soundtrack with lyrics by de Heer, music by the film's score composer, de Heer regular Graham Tardif, and sung by indigenous singer Archie Roach. This could easily not have worked, but somehow it does, and The Tracker is a compelling film which leaves you with plenty to think about.
De Heer had written the film ten years before he made it, and originally Grant Page was to play the role eventually played by Gary Sweet, billed in the credits as The Fanatic, which Sweet gives a chilling edge of obsession to. Page, a stuntman and stunt arranger of long standing, became The Veteran, which he plays with a quiet authority, and Damon Gameau is fine as The Follower, the youngest and greenest member of the party. Noel Wilton isn't onscreen much as the object of their manhunt. However, the film is dominated by David Gulpilil. If anyone is an iconic indigenous Australian actor, it's him. Clearly a man with considerable charisma, he was there at the start of the country's film revival, a teenager when Nicolas Roeg cast him in Walkabout and he's a vivid presence in Storm Boy and The Last Wave , Crocodile Dundee, Rabbit-Proof Fence and a very different Australian western, The Proposition. Older now (later forties) and greyer in The Tracker, Gulpilil brings considerable weight to his role. De Heer used him again in Ten Canoes as the narrator and also in Charlie's Country, which Gulpilil cowrote and starred in. The Scope cinematography, by another de Heer regular, Ian Jones, is impressive, making the most of the desert locations.
The Tracker was nominated for five AFI Awards, for Best Film (along with Ivan Sen's impressive debut feature Beneath Clouds and Australian Rules, it lost to Rabbit-Proof Fence), for de Heer for his direction and screenplay, for Ian Jones and for Tania Nehme's editing, but its only win was for David Gulpilil as Best Actor in a Leading Role. It became one of the ten de Heer big-screen features to bypass British distribution entirely.
Madman's DVD release of The Tracker is dual-layered and encoded for all regions.
The film was shot in 35mm with anamorphic lenses, and Madman's widescreen-enhanced transfer is in the ratio of 2.20:1, with thin bars at each side, appearing to be cropped slightly from the theatrical ratio of 2.39:1. This disc was released in 2003, before high-definition masters were common for new films, even on DVD, but this transfer is very good. There is some slight aliasing in places (especially when foliage is onscreen) but generally this is sharp and colourful, with good shadow detail, doing justice to the strong colours of the landscape in Jones's cinematography.
The soundtrack is available with three options, DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround (2.0). The DTS is the one of choice, though the Dolby Digital 5.1 is certainly very good, with some use of directional sound and the subwoofer filling in the low end of the music score and contributing to such effects as gunshots. The film is mostly in the English language, with other languages used (Aboriginal languages and, in one scene, Latin) purposely left untranslated. Unfortunately there are no subtitles available for the hard-of-hearing.
As so often with a Madman release, there are a good few extras provided. First on the menu is the theatrical trailer (2:06). Contrary to what it says on the back of the box, the trailer for Walkabout is not included.
Text biographies follow, with each person identified by role rather than name, in the style of the movie. These are for Rolf de Heer, producer Julie Ryan, David Gulpilil, Gary Sweet, Grant Page, Damon Gameau, Ian Jones, Tania Nehme, sound designer James Currie, Peter Coad, art director Beverley Freeman, Graham Tardif, horse master Bill Willoughby and Archie Roach. The last page of de Heer's biography links to a trailer for his next film, Alexandra's Project, which also features Gary Sweet in a leading role. Likewise, the final page of Peter Coad's biography links to both a gallery of his paintings for the film and a featurette about his contribution, of which more in a moment.
"Out-Takes" (14:37) is a featurette introduced and narrated by de Heer, who says this is a present to David Gulpilil, who liked nothing better to look at his "stuff-ups" on video and would often invite friends and passers-by to look at them to, with peals of Gulpilil's laughter heard outside. So that is what we have, though de Heer also includes sequences which show that Gulpilil can get his lines right when he needs to, especially remarkably as English is something like his fifth language.
"Paintings of Peter Coad" leads to two items. The first is a gallery of the fourteen paintings Coad contributed to the film, which formed an exhibition after the it was finished. The second item is a featurette (15:37), narrated by Coad, in which he describes his process of working on location, completing the paintings in his studio and the methods used by de Heer and Ian Jones in filming the finished works.
While the USA had Siskel and Ebert and the UK, for those of a certain age, had Barry Norman, the Australians had David and Margaret, respectively Stratton and Pomeranz, as the face of film criticism for a television audience. They formed a double-act for twenty-eight years, first on SBS in The Movie Show, later for ABC in At the Movies, retiring in December 2014. We have extracts from the former (9:30) about The Tracker, following their usual format of one of them (in this case Margaret) giving a review to camera and then inviting the other to comment, and they then both give the film four and a half stars out of five. This is followed by Stratton interviewing Rolf de Heer. Stratton's book about the 1970s film revival, The Last New Wave was invaluable to me when I started exploring Australian cinema (I'd also recommend his follow-up about the 1980s, The Avocado Plantation) largely because he was there at the time and has seen some films which are next to impossible to see nowadays, short of booking time in an Australian archive. He demonstrates this by dropping the name of a very obscure film from 1967, Journey out of Darkness, which features Ed Devereaux in blackface as an Aboriginal tracker and his prey another Aboriginal played by Malaysian-born singer Kamahl. (No, I haven't seen it, though some clips are available here.)
Next up is a series of interviews on location (34:36) featuring David Gulpilil, Rolf de Heer, Gary Sweet, Damon Gameau, Grant Page, Ian Jones, James Currie (interviewed in his editing suite). The extended length makes for some more considered answers than the usual text-question-and-soundbite-answer format which you'll find on so many discs, including a fair amount of technical detail. Jones and Gameau discuss the use of anamorphic lenses, used on most of de Heer's features to this date – Jones for the framing possibilities, Gameau on their effect on the actors, with depth of field often so small that a small movement could put him out of focus."
"Awards and Festivals" is four text pages of what the title describes. It includes links to footage of four awards ceremonies or festivals in which The Tracker featured: its appearance in competition at the 2002 Venice Film Festival including the press conference and a photoshoot (5:47), its world premiere at the 2002 Adelaide Festival of Arts, which featured live performances by Archie Roach of his songs from the film (10:54), as the opening night film at the 2002 Melbourne International Film Festival, with another Roach live performance (6:56), the Inside Film Awards (8:06), where it won Best Actor, Best Music and Best Film, with a unique video acceptance speech from Gulpilil. Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton turn up again, awarding David Gulpilil the Living Legend award, with another idiosyncratic video acceptance speech. The winners are revealed at the bottom of boxes filled with popcorn. Finally, we have David Gulpilil accepting his AFI Award (1:07).
The final item on the extras menu, "The Soundtrack" leads to the covers of two Archie Roach CDs, the soundtrack of The Tracker and his then-new album Sensual Being. This links to the video from a track from the latter, "Alien Invasion" (4:41, not "Alien Nation" as it says on the back of the DVD box).