Writer-director Rolf de Heer is said to have written the treatment for The Tracker in a single day and then taken a decade off before making the necessary moves to turn it into a movie. He could have taken a little longer to let it cool off, for this is an obvious, hot-coal piece of politically correct agitprop--as well known in Dixie as Down Under--about the grinding cruelty that whites have historically dished out to blacks.

Set in the wilds of Southern Australia of relatively recent vintage (1922), the film is an old-fashioned western manhunt. The three men on horseback are white--two mounted policemen, one seasoned and the other unseasoned, and a local who has been pressed into service. They are following a black man on foot, who is tracking another black man on foot (one accused of raping and murdering a white woman). The seasoned cop is identified in the credits as the Fanatic, for reasons that become abundantly apparent.

In their slow and tedious and generally talk-free travels, the pursuers come upon an innocent tribe of bush blacks--and the Fanatic's interrogation technique gets tragically out of hand, going from bullying to bloodshed. He guns down the lot of them and strings them up. The body count continues as they press on--till he's at last, belatedly, put out of his rabid rage.

The horrific violence in the film winds up muted by de Heer's decision to cut from the live action and flash on the primitive art of Peter Coad, an Australian Grandma Moses who depicts the bloody outcomes of the scenes. Probably, de Heer fancies himself something of a Grandma Moses himself. He presents his story crudely in the simplest terms possible, spare of speeches, while the soundtrack drones on with his lyrics, a poor substitute for insightful dialogue. Reportedly, there are ten songs in all, but neither the singer (Archie Roach) nor the composer (Graham Tardif) gives them distinctive coloring.

This directorial affectation reduces the characters to stick figures--not that Gary Sweet as the outrageously overstated villain, Damon Gameau as the greenhorn second-in-command and Grant Page as the luckless recruit seem to bring a lot to the party, acting-wise.

Ah, but there is one great note of distinction. David Gulpilil, the aboriginal Olivier, gives a title performance of remarkable strength and subtlety--not unlike the tracker he played recently in Rabbit-Proof Fence, another tale of abused aborigines. It is hard to believe that 33 years have elapsed since Gulpilil arrived on the screen as the young native boy in Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout. Now grizzled with years, he still possesses a charismatic, human dimension that pulls the audience into his corner--and here, just walking about.

-Harry Haun