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Acting, story buoy fable about a hunt for a fugitive

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Times Staff Writer

Traversing the dry Australian outback in 1922, four men pursue an Aborigine accused of murdering a white woman, in Rolf de Heer’s moralistic fable “The Tracker.” No names are used and the film’s credits identify the men only as archetypes: the Fanatic, a no-nonsense mounted policeman; the Follower, a ukulele-strumming novice; the Veteran, a laconic philosopher; the barely seen Fugitive; and the mysterious title character.

David Gulpilil, familiar from such films as “Walkabout” and “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” plays the Tracker, an enigmatic native leading the three white men through the wilds. They follow on horseback as he leads on foot, often in shackles, carefully interpreting imprints left on the trail. He takes a servile tack, calling the men “Boss” -- while they refer to him condescendingly as “our dusky friend” -- but there is obviously more to him than meets the eye.

As the men follow the accused deeper into the bush country it becomes clear their journey is meant as a parable for the Anglo colonization of Australia. The farther they go, the more blood is spilled. De Heer has built a tale that is part American western, part Greek drama, structuring the film around a 10-song cycle of mournful protest music visually punctuated in bright, primitive paintings by Peter Coad.

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The paintings represent the actual violence, which occurs off-screen, rendering it abstract but hauntingly palpable. De Heer is more interested in its aftermath and consequences, allowing the camera to linger on his actors’ faces as they process the events. Gulpilil’s visage is a particularly rich one, especially while his darting eyes give rise to a complex inner life as his otherwise expressionless features read the landscape.

Most of the brutality is instigated by Gary Sweet’s Fanatic, an idealistic fascist whose blue-eyed belief in the inferiority of the Aboriginal people lead him to be a cold-blooded killer. As disturbing as it is when he leads a massacre of a small group of tribesmen, the character becomes even more unsettling when he later describes what he views as a warm friendship with his previous Aboriginal tracker.

The tensions among the men increase as they close in on the Fugitive -- or is he closing in on them? As the whites become more dependent on the Tracker, they trust him less, unsure if he is a “noble savage,” “cunning trickster” or something else.

Australia’s painful relationship to its indigenous culture, with its parallels to the U.S.’ treatment of black and Native Americans, is a difficult subject that is dealt with here with acute sensitivity and awareness.

A high-minded film that at times verges on didacticism, “The Tracker” is redeemed by its adherence to a simple yet distinctive approach to storytelling and its uniformly strong acting. De Heer’s surprising vision of a kind of frontier justice based on a higher authority provides a strong lament to the country’s troubling past.

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‘The Tracker’

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Brutal off-screen violence evoked in paintings, mild language

David Gulpilil...The Tracker

Gary Sweet...The Fanatic

Damon Gameau...The Follower

Grant Page...The Veteran

Noel Wilton...The Fugitive

An ArtMattan Productions release. Writer-director Rolf de Heer. Producers Rolf de Heer, Julie Ryan. Director of photography Ian Jones. Editor Tania Nehme. Songs and music Graham Tardif, performed by Archie Roach. Art director-costume design Beverley Freeman. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.

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Exclusively at Laemmle’s Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd., (323) 655-4010.

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