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'The Tracker' allows viewers to see violence in a different way

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There’s a review Roger Ebert wrote that’s always stuck with me—it brought up the idea Francois Truffaut put forth about anti-war films, that it’s impossible really to make one because the action always argues for itself. This movie, Ebert said, may have found the answer, because whenever it turned to scenes of violence, rather than depicting the violence it showed those scenes as paintings. We would learn what happened, but we would be distanced, we would see it in a different way.

The problem is, while the review had always stuck with me, I couldn’t for the life of me remember what movie Ebert was talking about. I know now, though, because I’ve just watched it, and it was clear early on this had to be the movie he had reviewed. It’s called The Tracker, and it takes place in Australia in the 1920s, as three white men hunt an Aboriginal man who’s accused of murdering a white woman. The white men hunt with the aid of a tracker, another Aboriginal man who knows how to follow every misplaced pebble and bent piece of grass. As the men travel, they come upon small groups of Aboriginal people minding their own business, to whom they show extreme cruelty. But that cruelty is not shown as live action—each time, we cut to highly stylized, vivid paintings of the event. What this does is to remove the spectacle from the violence. It is, indeed, true that on-screen violence creates a kind of visceral reaction, a kind of thrill, even if it’s one that nauseates us. By showing us the paintings instead, we see the violence for the deeply sad action it is, without excitement.

And what does the tracker think of all this? Of helping these white men perpetrate these acts? It’s difficult to tell, and this is because of the absolute haymaker of a performance given by the famed Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil, who can create a single expression that could mean four or five different things, and who floats in an undefinable space. We know nothing about where the tracker came from or why he’s there, and it keeps us off balance for much of the film. It’s a remarkable performance in a remarkable movie, one that has to be seen to be fully appreciated.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.