The Tracker (2002 Rolf de Heer Film) Review

AKA: N/A
Genre: Drama/Meat Pie Western
Year Released: 2002
Distributor: ArtMattan
Origin: Australia
Running Time: 94 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: R
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Rabbit-Proof Fence, Birth of a Nation (2016), Django Unchained, Rashomon, Ten Canoes
Notes:
-Warning! Some spoilers will be mentioned here.
-This movie has absolutely nothing to do with the Kris Kristofferson film of the same name.
Fun Facts:
-The Tracker was directed by Dutch-Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer. He’s originally from Heemskerk, Netherlands, but moved to Sydney with his family during his childhood. Some of de Heer’s other films include Dingo, Alexandra’s Project, The King is Dead!, and Charlie’s Country.

-This was filmed in Arkaroola in Flinders Ranges, South Australia. That area is named after a mythical creature known as the Arkaroo that drank Lake Frome dry. According to the legend, the waterhole was a cause of that monster taking a big leak there. Okay, that was a nasty story, but in better news, it is a protected site and is part of the South Australia Heritage Register.

-The title character is played by the late David Gulpilil (now known as David Dalaithnugu due to posthumous naming conventions in Aborigine culture). He’s from the Yolngu tribe in the Northern Territory. Some of his other works as an actor involve Rabbit-Proof Fence, Walkabout, and the movie Australia. Dalaithnugu died a month prior to this review due to lung cancer in his late 60s (his birth year hasn’t been confirmed).

-In addition to other Aborigines featured in The Tracker, Archie Roach did the soundtrack. He’s of Gunditjmara and Bundjalung descent and has recorded music since the 80s while still being active in that field to this day. Roach was in the 2020 ARIA (the Australian equivalent to the Grammys) Hall of Fame and is the first songwriter in history to win a Human Rights Achievement Award after his single “Took the Children Away” was released in 1990. That’s saying nothing about his consistent work in helping the Aborigine community at large in Australia. He has also toured with Tracy Chapman, Patti Smith, and even Bob Dylan among several other musicians.

It has been a long time, but I get to cover an Australian film again. This will also be the second time I’ve covered a film involving Aborigines after watching the Desert Feet Tour documentary. Unlike the aforementioned film, this is a narrative work. The Aboriginal people of Australia certainly deserve to be represented in film and their history of them has been something I’ve researched from time to time. Sadly, it gets quite graphic even though I’m no stranger to learning about various atrocities against different people. For example, the Tasmanian ethnic group was completely exterminated from their homeland, so no one on this planet can say that they are descendants of that heritage. There have been concentration camps and even grisly actions such as having Aborigine children buried with only their heads exposed before the colonizers would kick them around for sport. I can’t speak for how much this gets talked about or not in Australian culture since I’m not from there, but I’m only bringing information and not shaming anyone for not knowing. Trust me, I’m from America. I’m from a country where a certain group of people has been freaking out about the concept of Critical Race Theory even though it isn’t taught in the K-12 levels because they don’t want to face the sordid history of the United States in regards to horrific racist atrocities.

Now, a Dutch immigrant managed to make an original screenplay involving something regarding the relations between the Aborigines and their white Australian counterparts.

How will this dark tale unfold in the arid deserts of Australia? If I can lighten the mood a bit before the review proper, I was (as the internet would say) today years old when I first heard the term “meat pie western” as an official genre name for Australian movies that take place in the Outback with western tropes like how “spaghetti western” was to Italian-directed movies of that ilk. As a film critic, I’m always learning in so many ways.

The Tracker takes place in 1922 somewhere in the Outback. An Aboriginal man known as The Tracker is tasked to lead three men into this scorching hot part of the island nation to find an Aborigine who was accused of murdering a white woman. The people on this mission involve The Fanatic who’s a sociopathic policeman who is hellbent on capturing the fugitive, yet is a bit too motivated to shoot or hang anyone who stands in his way. There’s the ukulele-playing Follower who’s a rookie cop for this assignment who is naive to the situation, but he harbors an internalized resentment for his superior officer. The third man is The Veteran who is an aging former soldier who is along for the ride. The search party involving the colonial police as well as this Indigenous individual has to deal with rationing their supplies, trying to find this accused man, the scorching heat, and the treacherous environment around them. Tensions arise between the four and the mission becomes deadlier by the hour.

That was certainly an intense movie and I will say that the build-up was powerful. The tension is there at the beginning as there’s the narrative text explaining the characters at first. How the movie starts before the crescendo hits like a sledgehammer to the head in a way I legitimately did not expect with the character interactions as well as the revelations of the crime. This movie pulls no punches with the cruelty on display, especially with The Fanatic. Anyone would make this guy cartoonish in his racism and characterization. While he does have moments of both covert and overt bigotry, he still feels like a realistically scary individual with him talking down to The Follower, torturing The Tracker character, and even shooting up Aborigines that have nothing to do with the crime itself. I did have my concerns with the title character with his speech most of the time sounding like an Australian Steppen Fetchit as he calls the white people “boss” with the same inflections of a slave saying “massa”. My jaw dropped when he says this after The Fanatic guns down the innocent Aborigines: “There’s no such thing as an innocent Black. The only innocent Black is a dead one.” Holy crap and a half! Even Candace Owens or Larry Elder would get severe douche chills before curling in the fetal position after hearing a line like that. I was proven wrong later on in the film where it was revealed to be a ruse he put on for the search party with him acting like a docile sellout. I won’t spoil how it plays out, but it is revealed that he knows Latin in addition to English and various Aboriginal languages before he becomes very articulate as he enacts a brutal revenge scene that would NEVER happen in an American movie given the dynamics and context around that portion of the film. The plot does improve and the twists did make it better. The production was quite interesting with the gritty visuals to match the harsh desert environment and some paintings thrown in for some of the violent scenes which are both well-constructed as well as horrifying at times. They don’t mess around with the paintings highlighting death scenes or ones with grievous injuries instead of typical live-action footage at those junctions. This could’ve really been gimmicky or used to censor the carnage (the latter is definitely not true with the blood as well as occasional nudity), but this was done with the right kind of moderation. de Heer worked with a skeleton crew, but that’s not a flaw, that was a feature to make a no-frills approach with the camera work. Besides, the paintings definitely took a lot of effort with the art direction. The acting was very strong with the facial expressions as well as the body language. The Tracker did have some fascinating storytelling in showing this epic revenge tale and Western.

The Tracker does lose its orientation in different junctures though. The Veteran didn’t have enough time to develop as a character. He dies fairly early in the film and it felt like he was just vibing along with the other three. Sure, he has some minor arguments with The Fanatic, but after getting that fatal injury, he doesn’t show other personality traits. There’s a massive gender inequality with the presentation as the only women shown were victims of The Fanatic’s onslaught which really hurts the optics of female representation. I’m not asking for a movie to pass the Bechdel Test every time, but this did bug me a bit with the small cast. Racism does play a major role with The Fanatic character let alone the colonial mindset on display, but it gets too on the nose with his overt complaints or with some of the songs in the soundtrack. Sure, he doesn’t drop the N-bomb, but he’s not far off since he has a habit of saying “Black bastard” like he’s Liam Neeson (how does that bigot still have a career and is NOT canceled?!) or flexing his white privilege in obvious ways like bragging about getting medals for killing Aborigines or telling The Tracker character that the legal system will hang him no matter what. Going back to the music, the soundtrack makes me feel ambivalent. In isolation, it’s good rootsy work, but some of the lyrics get too preachy. While I liked the usage of the organ and slide guitars, some of the music felt anachronistic to 1920s Australia. Sometimes anachronism can work for period pieces with songs or tones such as that stripped-down piano take on “Strange Fruit” by Nina Simone during that major battle scene in Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation, but the soundtrack tonality did push me into not feeling like I’m watching something from that time period even if the lyrics are relevant to the themes of the movie.

This was a good effort and addition to ArtMattan’s portfolio of covering stories involving Black people from around the world. The Tracker had so many twists and surprises that I wouldn’t have ever predicted. There’s strong acting and the minimalist camera work makes the harsh atmosphere feel like one is transported in the Outback. However, the anti-Black overtones of The Fanatic can get too obvious and didactic at times. The soundtrack was a double-edge sword that didn’t always match the time period despite matching the themes of the story. The Tracker is one hardcore revenge story that doesn’t hold back at all.

Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1-2 points if you like meat pie westerns.
-Add 1 point if you like revenge stories in an anti-colonial context.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you want epic productions.
-Subtract 1-3 points if you feel very uncomfortable with genocides as plot points.

Pros:
-Intense no-frills camera work and painting scenes
-Great acting from all the actors
-Impactful plot twists and the revenge subplot is brutal in their deconstruction

Cons:
-Ambivalent soundtrack
-Severe lack of female characters
-The anti-colonial and anti-racist themes can be didactic despite being necessary

Final Score: 8/10 points

Content Advisory: The Tracker is for mature audiences only. There is swearing and most of it comes from The Fanatic. Aborigines get killed and tortured in brutal ways. Men, women, and children get offed by The Fanatic. However, other characters do die. There are some suggestive themes like The Tracker thrusting in one scene to show the fugitive possibly having sex with a woman and there’s even a discussion of a rape case going on. The themes of colonization, genocide, dog whistles, brutal racism, capital punishment, and white privilege are brought up.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos are property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. The Tracker is property of ArtMattan. The DVD cover is from IMDb and is property of ArtMattan.

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