It’s been a quarter-century or so since Australian movies began, with The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, to seriously contemplate the scorched earth of Aborigine culture, but in many ways it seems that this huge and monstrously painful topic is just gaining steam. A decent little exercise in nativist outrage, Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker, with its dynamic between indigene and colonial oppressor, could’ve easily been a western (although there’s a notable dearth of the proud warrior heroics Native Americans are usually allowed). Paradigmatically, de Heer’s “blacks” are an already beaten race, half “Indian” and half demi-slave, scrambling around in the white man’s shadow as outlaws, servants, or half-human nomads subject to slaughter.
Like any good low-budget Anthony Mann oater, the movie locates us in the frontier of a lawless yesteryear (1922) by way of a handful of pilgrims, a few horses, and an infinite stretch of dusty outland. We can ignore de Heer’s wannabe-iconic refusal to actually name his characters (they’re listed in the credits as the Tracker, the Fugitive, the Follower, etc.), because the landscape is shot so simply, and the dramatic imperatives are so Jack London. Of course, the politics, though simple, are hardly London-esque (in fact, London’s violently racist and fantastically titled story “The Inevitable White Man” could be profitably adapted as an anti-colonialist screed). “Little is known about this man,” a subtitle tells us about David Gulpilil’s tracker, and similarly chatty sketches are offered for Gary Sweet’s murderously bigoted ranger, Damon Gameau’s fresh-faced recruit, and Grant Page’s weathered conscript. The four are hunting a fifth, accused of killing a white woman, but immediately we understand the tension resides between the savvy black man leading the group on foot and the rancorous white man in power. Once an interrogation of a few innocent natives in the bush turns spontaneously into massacre, we know it’s not a matter of whether the imperialists get their comeuppance, but when.
The glint of genocide—subtly extrapolated by the tracker’s despairing reaction when he alone first spots the camping bystanders—may be this modest film’s most salient ingredient. A fresh debate rages in Australian scholarship about the historical extent of racial decimation. Aussie schoolkids have always been taught that the colonialization process was relatively peaceful (relative to North American, South American, and African, at least), but the last few decades have seen an explosion of oral-history documentation to the contrary. Counter-programming pundits have recently declared the existence of the “massacre myth.” Unsurprisingly, the argument seems to belong wholly to whites and to fall into strictly liberal/conservative camps, but The Tracker takes the easy-to-believe blood legacy as read, making it something of a pioneering pop text.
In any case, de Heer adroitly illustrates moments of savagery by cutting to expressionistic paintings, but he also relies too often on song interludes—the lovely protest ballads crooned by Aborigine artist Archie Roach take up virtually a third of the film’s length. The surprise here might be Gulpilil himself. A familiar, stoic axiom of Australian self-representation since Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), Gulpilil has rarely had a chance to genuinely live on-screen, and here, at nearly 50, he reveals a startling authority and depth, never disclosing too much of his character’s brain-work but nevertheless buzzing with furious moral certainty.