by Roderick Conway Morris

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God respects Aboriginal law as much as he respects white man's law, maybe more.'

By Roderick Conway Morris
13 September 2002


Three white men on horseback are seen riding out into the wilderness, following a black man on foot. The ambience could be out of an American Western set in the 19th century, but we are in the Australian outback in 1922.

A white woman has been murdered and this is the posse sent out to bring an Aboriginal suspect back for trial, but to a white man's justice, colossally stacked against the indigenous population.

The expedition is theoretically led by an experienced, unashamedly racist 'law-enforcer,' the 'Boss' (Gary Sweet), who is prepared to go to any lengths to hunt down his quarry; assisted by a fresh-faced young policeman (Damon Gameau), a reluctant older bushman (Grant Page) and the Aboriginal 'Tracker.' Despite the Boss's general contempt for Aborigines, it is soon clear that without the Tracker, the expedition stands no chance of succeeding in its mission.

As the Tracker follows the myriad, minute signs left by the fugitive, we try to read the face, as craggy and contoured as the territory he is traversing, of this mysterious figure, and to decipher his purposes, thoughts and loyalties. This central character, in a suspense-filled and unpredictable story, is played with extraordinary skill, forcefulness and subtlety by David Gulpilil (whose film career stretches back to Nicholas Roeg's memorable 1969 'Walkabout').

The movie was shot entirely in South Australian outback in the mountains of the Finders Range, which have a strange, lushly colorful picture-book aspect. In fact, the landscape comes to seem like some Aboriginal Garden of Eden, violated and profaned by the uncomprehending white intruders, who not only stir up conflict in this primeval paradise but are deeply and dangerously divided among themselves. As the Tracker sagely remarks: 'God respects Aboriginal law as much as he respects white man's law, maybe more.'

Early on, the Boss reveals his psychopathic tendencies when his interrogation of a bewildered band of Aborigines culminates in their brutal killing. But here, and in the further bloody incidents that occur as the tension mounts, de Heer avoids voyeuristically dwelling on the violence, by illustrating these dramas with painted images (by the Australian artist Peter Coad). This lends them a mythic quality, as though they were descriptions of events, passed down from generation to generation, finally to find expression in popular art. And the impression of a legend in the making is further enhanced by a series of songs, performed by the indigenous folk musician Archie Roach, which run through the film like a commentary.

As the journey continues, roles are reversed, unforeseen alliances forged, and the Tracker gradually reveals himself as a many-layered individual, determined to be the master of his own destiny and prepared to sacrifice his life if he fails. And when this Conradian tale arrives at its surprising denouement, a curiously, yet convincingly, positive and redemptive conclusion is reached.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023