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Film Review: “The Tracker”

TrackerThis is a hardboiled, downright brutal at times, Australian “Western” along the lines of The Proposition, but with a more stripped down plot and a deeper focus on the nation-continent’s racism, specifically white persecution of aboriginals.

Set in 1922, the film puts you in the middle of things from the start: three white policeman in the bush, sent to catch a fugitive aboriginal accused of murdering a white woman, led by an aboriginal tracker. Rather than names, the  mythical aspect is stressed through calling the characters by terms that describe their personalities, the Fanatic, the senior policeman, the Follower, a raw, new recruit, and the Veteran, a saddened, weary, older man.

As you can probably guess from his name, the Fanatic is just that, a miserable, sadistic racist who delights in the abuse and murder of aboriginals. Despite continual setbacks, largely his own fault, he drives the search party on to catch their quarry, always demanding absolute obedience and control. Most of his abuse is reserved for the Tracker, the smiling, deferential aboriginal guide who patiently plods ahead on  foot while the whites ride on horseback, as his keen, bush savvy eyes unerringly pick out the escaping Fugitive’s path.

Despite his complete underdog status, regarded as less than human by the whites, especially the vicious Fanatic, the Tracker quickly proves to have carefully hidden reserves of cunning, resourcefulness, and knowledge the whites consider him simply incapable of possessing. He’s brilliantly underplayed by the aboriginal actor David Gulpilil, who was also in The Proposition. One way or another, he continually gets the better of the Fanatic as he leads the whites further into the bush. Gary Sweet also gives a good performance as the Fanatic, practically foaming at the mouth in his murderous frenzy to abuse aboriginals, men, women, and children alike, made all the more terrifying by his staring, intense, pale blue eyes.

There are frequent scenes of brutality against aboriginals with the worst depicted through shots of Mother Hubbard style primitive paintings. It’s still tough to watch and made even more horrible by knowing such behavior was not only condoned, but frequently honored. The Follower, played by Damon Gameau, has an interesting story arc as he steadily grows more repulsed by the Fanatic’s indiscriminate slaughter. Like any good Western, landscape is one of the most important characters.  The Tracker is deeply satisfying from that aspect as well with frequent, long, lyrical tracking shots of Australia’s bush, from rocky, lifeless plains to endless, rugged mountain vistas covered with scrub, as awe inspiring in its worn, weathered way as the American West. Most interesting of all are the aboriginal characters, especially those at the end who remain true to the ancient traditions, ominously rattling long spears at a white intruder.

I recommend this film to anyone who likes a good Western or those interested in Australian history, warts and all. Viewer be warned, however. Like The Proposition, you’ll need a pretty strong stomach to watch this one.

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