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Posted: Friday, January 18, 2008 10:00 pm

Destination: Antioch

Overall rating: *** (out of five)

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The movies, it seems, are increasingly headed down paths in the woods, out to open water and, in the case of John Curran's excellent new film "Tracks," into the deepest reaches of the Australian desert.

Surely our desire to disconnect, to feel the harshness of nature and the quiet of solitude feeds into the appeal of films like last year's near-wordless sea adventure "All Is Lost" with Robert Redford or the upcoming "Wild," in which Reese Witherspoon hikes the Pacific Coast Trail. But while those movies have their attributes, I'll take "Tracks" for the way it subtly and unsentimentally builds emotionally, step by step, across 1,700 miles.

That's the distance traveled by Robyn Davidson (played by Mia Wasikowska), whose journey was chronicled by National Geographic. She then wrote an acclaimed 1980 memoir, "Tracks," about the trip in which she and her dog, Diggity, with four camels in tow, trekked across the Western Australian desert, ending at the Indian Ocean.

It's a mad journey that earns her the moniker "Camel Lady" and turned her into a reluctant celebrity. "Tracks" gradually unspools why she's spending half a year alone and in the harshest of conditions, filling in with flashbacks to her mother's suicide and the simultaneous and (to the young Robyn) equally devastating loss of her childhood dog.

And this, despite the camels, is a movie for the dogs. Rarely has there been a more affecting portrait of a girl and her pup. On her trip, Robyn, in an uncharacteristic moment of affection, sleeps with the photographer (Adam Driver) despite his ceaseless yammering. But he has nothing on Diggity, the black lab whom she tenderly and far more contentedly shares her bed with.

Curran, who has an old-fashioned touch for the intimate adventure, is at his best finding the slower rhythms of exotic locales, like the colonial Far East of his W. Somerset Maugham adaptation, "The Painted Veil." And while Curran and cinematographer Mandy Walker give the film an elegant emptiness, "Tracks" is as much in Wasikowska's fretful eyes as it is the beautifully barren desert.

As Driver's Rick Smolan says, she has a problem with people. The desert pulls her as an escape from "the malaise" of her generation and as a refugee away from humans, altogether. When friends visit her shortly before she departs, she cringes at the cacophony of their conversation and bristles at having her photograph taken.

She's idolized for the romance of her intrepidness, but for Davidson, it's a necessary withdrawal from society. She tolerates the company of few besides Diggity and her camels, like the Aboriginal elder "Mr. Eddie" (the charming Roly Mintuma), who guides her through sacred territory.

Wasikowska, the enormously talented actress of "Jane Eyre" and a recent sand storm of films including "Only Lovers Left Alive" and "Maps to the Stars," plays Davidson with greasy, mussed hair and her dusty hands shoved into her pockets. Later on the journey, her skin is scorched from the sun. Flies buzz around her.

It's a performance of rugged strength, and she powerfully carries "Tracks" through the desert and into the heart. But maybe the secret to "Tracks" — what separates it from other recent cinematic feats of isolation like "Gravity" — isn't just Wasikowska or Curran's fluid directing. It's got something else the other tales don't: a dog, a movie's best friend.

"Tracks," a Weinstein Co. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "thematic elements, some partial nudity, disturbing images and brief strong language." Running time: 112 minutes. Three stars out of four.

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MPAA rating definition for PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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