Directed By: Rolf de Heer
Starring: David Gulpilil, Gary Sweet, Damon Gameau
Tag line: "All men choose the path they walk"
Trivia: The music for this film is performed by Archie Roach, a popular aboriginal country musician
Since his screen debut in 1971’s Walkabout, David Gulpilil has become one of the most recognizable actors in Australian cinema. Having played supporting roles in films like Mad Dog Morgan, Crocodile Dundee, Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Proposition (he even had a brief appearance in Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, as “The Aborigine”), 2002’s The Tracker, an unforgettable, sometimes shocking expose of racism in early 20th century Australia, finally allowed the actor to take center stage, delivering what is arguably the strongest performance of his career.
Australia, 1922. A mounted policeman (Gary Sweet, billed as “The Fanatic”), a rookie officer (Damon Gameau, aka “The Follower”), and an aging gunman (“The Veteran”, portrayed by Stunt Rock's Grant Page) are searching for an Aborigine (Noel Wilton) accused of murdering a white woman. Seeing as the fugitive is hiding somewhere in the Australian Outback, the three bring along a professional tracker (Gulpilil), an Aborigine who’s familiar with the terrain, to help find him. Despite the abuse heaped upon him by “The Fanatic” (whose hatred of blacks occasionally leads to violence), the Tracker continues to guide them deeper into the Outback, assuring the trio that, with each step they take, they’re getting closer to finding the man they seek. But is the Tracker leading them in the right direction, or does he have an agenda of his own?
Director Rolf de Heer (who also penned the screenplay) makes some interesting stylistic choices throughout The Tracker, starting with the music; all of the songs, which were written by De Heer himself and performed by vocalist Archie Roach, work in unison with the story, and sometimes provide insight into what the characters are thinking. In one of the movie’s most devastating scenes, the Tracker and his party happen upon a gathering of Aborigines, one of whom is wearing a policeman’s jacket. In an effort to find out how they acquired this coat, “The Fanatic” and “The Follower” put the Aborigines (a few of whom are women) in irons and question them, holding guns to their heads as they do so. Then, suddenly, shots ring out, and when the smoke clears, all of the Aborigines are dead. As this sequence plays out, the Tracker is off to the side, looking on in horror, and a song titled “My People” fills the soundtrack, cluing us in on the character’s inner conflict as the views the carnage. In addition to the music, de Heer stops short of showing the film’s more violent moments, cutting instead to a series of paintings, rendered by artist Peter Coad, which depict the gruesome outcomes of each bloody encounter (these paintings were designed to look as if they were made by an Aborigine tribe, compiling a visual record of what occurred during this ill-fated quest).
While the entire cast is superb (Gary Sweet is especially effective as “The Fanatic”, easily one of the most deplorable characters I’ve experienced in quite a while), it’s Gulpilil who gives the film’s most poignant performance, playing a man torn between duty and his heritage, and trying his best to balance the two. For his work in The Tracker, The Film Critics Association of Australia named Gulpilil the year’s Best Actor, as did the Australian Film Institute. In fact, Gulpilil racked up four major awards for his turn in The Tracker.
And if you ask me, he should have won a few more.