Similarities between the histories of Australia and the United States are obvious. The proportion of space to settled areas, the pressure on the natives of those spaces by European immigrants, the relations between natives and whites, these are only some of the links. Film in Australia has not made an icon of the outback as thoroughly as we have done with the West, but Australian “Westerns” occur. An exceptional one is The Tracker, which has the shape of an offbeat American Western and seems at first a sort of Down Under copy. But it develops characters and relationships that are indigenous.
It is 1922. At the start three white riders are heading through the bush led by an Aborigine tracker. Subtitles, much like the character tags in an old-time theater program, are tacked to these men: the tough police officer, the dewy young recruit, the civilian conscript, and the grizzled tracker. They are hunting a native who is said to have killed a white woman, and the search has been going on for days. Note that there is—at the start, anyway—another element, the white men’s mounts and their packhorse. The director, Rolf de Heer, makes much of the horses, their plodding, their straining, their hooves pounding over rocks, as if to underscore that, without these usually ignored components of such a story, white law would not exist. Equine collaboration sustains the authority out there. (Unlike Native Americans, these Aborigines have no horses and do not ride.)
The feeling that this might have been Arizona, with a sheriff’s posse guided by an Apache scout, does not last long. The relationship between tracker and riders is differently tinged here. Servant though the tracker is, he is not only superior in wilderness cunning, in communion with the world they traverse, and in quietness of spirit, he seems to be silently chuckling most of the time. Yet we eventually learn that he is not a racial traitor: he has his own reasons for guiding the white men. In any story about a native and colonists, we are always prepared for the superior skills of the native, but here there is also a difference of basic view. (A comic index of differing values: every morning the white men shave while the bristly tracker, watching them, grins.)
The three whites are an author’s careful assortment. (De Heer wrote the screenplay.) The military brute, the innocent, and the ethical nondescript supply the necessary notes for a triad. Riding through what we might have thought was enemy territory, they meet no opposition: they encounter only a few old people at first, then some others and children. The officer kills them all, calmly, as if it were just part of his job. Then, in an almost desultory way, opposition starts, helped eventually by the revolted tracker.
Even without the songs on the soundtrack by an Aborigine singer, even without the “primitive” paintings of climactic moments that De Heer inserts, the film would mutate into para-cinema—a work meant to be seen as more than a story, a thematic quintessence. A good deal of this sense is generated by the tracker himself. He is played by David Gulpilil, who was in Rabbit-Proof Fence—an actor who simply and endearingly presents a man who can suffer and smile and wait because he knows more than his masters. The others in the cast are adequate to help give the film some feeling of a ballad.
The ultimate subject of that ballad? Space. De Heer’s directing is especially notable for transmuting the film’s very setting into its theme. He reminds us throughout that all these people are puny compared with the vastness around them. This contrast is familiar in Westerns, particularly those of John Ford, but here that contrast is something more than visual: we get the feeling that because these Aborigines are aware of their modest size in their world, they are aware of their place in the scheme of things. The whites, on the other hand, are there as emperors.
A Russian film attempts the same transmutation of its filmic elements into the thematic. The Return deals with a man who returns to his family—a wife and two sons about fourteen and twelve—after a twelve-year absence. In the course of the next few days he takes the boys on a fishing trip that ends unexpectedly, as does the film.
Here are some of the questions that the film raises and doesn’t answer. Where had the father been? Why is he accepted when he comes back? How did this family, far out in the country with no visible means of support, survive in his absence? Once back, why does he spend so little time with his beautiful wife? On the fishing trip, what is the business that the father conducts aboard a freighter on a lake? What is in the box that the father digs out of the ground in a forest? The director was asked this last question in an interview and said, “It’s a secret. In fact, it’s of no importance really. It contains some mystery which disappears together with the mysterious father.”
It would be tempting to agree with the non-importance except that the screenwriters, Vladimir Moiseenko and Alexander Novototsky, apparently created precisely the ambiguous script that the director, Andrey Zvyagintsev, wanted. He has in fact emphasized the mistiness of the screenplay by putting much of the picture in literal mist. The sky is always gray, the flat lakeshore landscape is sad, the air is often cottony. The film is technically in color, but not effectually, and there is almost no music. The whole might be an exercise in gossamer myth, signifying a dream-in-life. Still, it never quite realizes the oneiric quality because, paradoxically, of its best achievement—the performances of the two boys. They are vital, insistent. Their beings contradict the dreaminess and make us ask the questions mentioned above.
Vladimir Garin, the older boy, and Ivan Dobronravov, his brother, have to carry the film. They are on screen very much more than anyone else, and there is never anything in them but verity. Their feelings range from brotherly dudgeon to brotherly confidence to awe and fright and disgust, and their performances have no hint of fabrication. These boys are further instances of phenomenal acting by very young people. (Nothing to do with child stars.The youngsters that I mean are rarely seen in other films—the children in Rabbit-Proof Fence, for example.) Part of their attainment is, of course, intelligence, part the mimetic gift that most children have; and part of it surely is because the director, Zvyagintsev, whose first film this is, was trained as an actor and has done a lot of acting. The boys benefit, though, oddly, their reality contradicts the very film they are in.
A note past irony. I’ve just learned that, after The Return was finished, young Garin was drowned in an accident much like a scene in the film.
This article appeared in the February 9, 2004 issue of the magazine.