Australia's troubled relationship with its indigenous people forms the core of Rolf de Heer's recent The Tracker, a mythic frontier drama now available on DVD. The story is set in 1922, in the continent's interior, where the natives must be "cleaned out" if they won't submit to the white man's rule of law. Under the flag of civilization, a small group of men is searching for an aboriginal man suspected of murdering a white woman.
De Heer's film is intentionally reminiscent of Westerns, morality tales played out in vast dramatic landscapes that magnify the actions of a few. Here, we're introduced to the men simply by an on-screen title and a précis: The Fanatic, a hardline colonial cop; The Veteran, a taciturn elder; The Follower, a naïve youthful recruit; and The Tracker, an aboriginal hired to ferret out The Fugitive.
But de Heer doesn't offer a simple black-and-white tale of exciting pursuit and expected justice. The Tracker's antecedents are the moody revisionist Westerns of the late 1960s and early '70s, with their fuzzy morality and ugly violence. Just as those films often transposed the moral authority of the lawman and the Indian, here, too, as we trudge deeper into the country, the focus shifts from written law to the natural order.
In its content, The Tracker is disturbingly violent and angry, but de Heer makes two interesting choices. He uses folk songs (written for the film) to express the story's polemics about disenfranchisement. And rather than realistically depict brutal scenes -- The Fanatic, who uses his gun to "speak" to the uncomprehending natives, shoots one old man through the tongue -- de Heer cuts away to folk-art-style paintings that freeze the horror without exploiting it.
Indeed, much of the film is quiet, even reflective: The camera frequently pulls back from the closely shot scenes to reveal the expanse of nothingness around the men. Yet the shifts in power are palpable and tense. It's clear early that The Tracker is hardly the compliant grinning fool he presents himself to be -- though his actual motivations aren't immediately evident. A marvelous performance from David Gulpilil (Walkabout, Rabbit-Proof Fence) as The Tracker keeps us riveted: Who is leading whom, and for what purpose -- and what justice, if any, will be wrought?