New from Umbrella Entertainment is the Blu-Ray release of Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker. Starring the legendary David Gulpilil in the first lead role of his career, it is the story of a posse in the Northern Territory searching for an Aboriginal man accused of murdering a white woman and the harrowing misadventures that occur along the way. First released in 2002, it was lauded by industry types and critics for its lyrical and powerful study of racism in post-colonial times.
In the history of Australian law enforcement through the colonial era and the early 20th century, Aboriginal trackers were vital for finding victims and offenders in the bush or the outback. The abilities of these trackers were the stuff of legend and many superstitious whites considered their ability to read signs in the natural environment as supernatural. For almost the entirety of bushranging history, trackers were employed to find bandits in the bush – a terrain the settlers found alien and treacherous. By the 1920s, when The Tracker is set, bushranging was seemingly in its death throes (bushranging is like a blackberry bush – it never stays dead for too long) but the trackers were still the bushrangers’ greatest nemesis. And thus it is with The Tracker, a simple hunt narrative based around the incomparable abilities of the Aboriginal trackers. Though to refer to this as a bushranger film is tenuous, many common tropes are apparent: the bush-faring fugitive protected by friends and relatives, the haplessness of the police in searching the bush and themes of crime and punishment and justice. By focusing not on the criminal, not on the police but on the humble tracker we get a whole new perspective on this element of law enforcement, which creates fertile soil to grow from.
Gulpilil is amusing, enigmatic and captivating as the titular Tracker. His weariness of the white men he has been drafted to serve is matched by his determination to complete his task and his sympathy for his fellows who suffer immeasurably at the hands of white men. Gary Sweet is on top form as the relentless, amoral policeman hell-bent on finding his quarry. While his role may seem cartoonishly evil at times there’s a truth to it that perhaps many modern day Australians can’t recognise. Damon Gameau, in his screen debut, shows what has made him a mainstay of the Australian cinema ever since with his performance as a young man who becomes disillusioned and broken by the evils he witnesses. Finally Grant Page represents the settlers, halfway between understanding the Aboriginals and stuck in the sense of superiority of the whites. He does not approve nor condemn the horrifying things that the police do to Aboriginals and becomes the first casualty, testing his colleagues’ moral fortitude.
The film’s visuals are lyrical and immersive. The landscape dominates proceedings, the camera frequently pulling back to contextualise these figures in the undulating wilderness or lingering on craggy outcrops and cracked earth. The dust from the earth permeates everything, sapping the colours into shades of yellow, brown and orange with lashings of blue and green. The Blu-Ray transfer renders this with brilliant clarity and colour so vibrant you can almost taste it. Umbrella have continued their trend of producing the highest quality restorations and HD transfers, with The Tracker enjoying the benefits of its first 4K restoration.
An intriguing device utilised throughout is employing paintings by artist Peter Coad to illustrate the violence rather than depicting gore and turning it into a grisly spectacle. The violence here is not about titillation, it’s about highlighting the horrendous things people do to each other. The effectiveness of this technique is not 100% but it does create a welcome respite from the viscera employed by most cinema.
Rather than a score, Rolf de Heer uses the musical talents of Archie Roach as the soundtrack, lending a strange anachronistic vibe that reminds the viewer that this was not so far into the past.
Extras on this disc are generous and showcase the process as well as the reception for the film. The featurette David Gulpilil: “I Remember…” is an emotional road trip through the locations from the movie with Gulpilil describing his reminiscences. We are also treated to interviews and outtakes as well as footage from various premieres and festivals and an Archie Roach music video to round it off – overall a wonderful collection of supplementary materials.
If you are a lover of Australian film, drama or even just a simple yet moving story beautifully told, The Tracker is essential viewing and with this Blu-Ray release you get the benefit of seeing it the best that you probably ever could have.