Finke: There and Back Review – Free Solo by Way of Mad Max Fury Road, a Must See

Mark my word, Dylan River is one of the most important creative artists working in Australia right now. When he’s not helping his dad, Warwick Thornton, shoot masterpieces like Sweet Country, he’s busy making groundbreaking series like Robbie Hood. And when he’s done there, he’s off helping out on the iconic Mystery Road series. In between, he’s directing the exhilarating documentary, Finke: There and Back

This stunning film has River bringing the legendary Finke Desert Race to the big screen. Kicking off in 1976, the Finke race is the longest off-road race in the Southern Hemisphere, where over 500 eager motorbike riders and opportunistic car drivers take to the red desert near Alice Springs and drive 229km in one direction, before having a rest overnight (and more than a few bevvies) and riding back again the next day. With a terrain that’s unforgiving, and a landscape that outwardly rejects easy traversal, the Finke race is not one for the faint hearted.  

The main goal is to gain the title of ‘King of the Desert’, but as we see, there’s all manner of reasons that folks would want to take on the race, with everything from a thirst for adrenaline to honouring fathers who have passed to just ticking off a bucket list item. The path to building a connection to the race comes from showing a breadth of stories from the many hopeful riders.

There’s Isaac Elliott, a paraplegic rider who suffered his life-changing injury not far from the Finke track. His desire to race the Finke is not to win, but rather to savour the thrill of riding on a motorbike down a sandy dirt track at 170kms an hour. With a custom built motorbike being his chosen chariot, Elliott’s story is one of the brilliant human stories within Finke: There and Back. Elsewhere there’s the group of local riders, eager to bring the crown of ‘King of the Desert’ back to the Finke for the first time in eleven years.  

Each new race brings a wealth of new commercial competitors, each flexing their wallets and ensuring they have the power to secure the win. Early on, we’re given a clear impression as to why the film follows the many motorbike riders competing, and not the troops of souped-up cars, replete with land-conquering suspension that makes short work of the plentiful ‘whoops’ along the track. While the graceful, sleek movement of cars over the track looks impressive, it’s also devoid of skill, with the suspension overcoming any major difficulty from the corrugated track.

A ‘whoops’ is a brutal bump in the track, one that often works to fling a rider off their bike, quite likely delivering a horrific injury. More than a few riders have lost their lives racing the Finke, and as such, River ensures to show the safety protocols in place, with checkpoints keeping track of each rider, a sky full of helicopters monitoring the race, and an army of medics on standby for the inevitable accidents. Given around seventy racers fail to finish the race, it becomes no surprise that this is the local hospital’s busiest day of the year, with those with the harshest injuries being flown directly to Darwin or Adelaide for intensive care. 

All of this means little if the footage doesn’t convey the pure adrenaline and thrill of the race, which makes the cinematography that River and his team captures of the stunning vistas of the Alice remind us just how beautiful Australia is as a country. The search for adrenaline is layered in thick coating of red dust, and River puts us in the thick of it at every bump and turn, full of broken bones, sweat and tears, and some of the most exhilarating, heart-in-your-throat moments, witnessed on screen. Eric Bana adds to his revhead persona, with the Love the Beast director providing a comfortable narration to the piece, one that’s full of equal admiration and envy of the riders.

Dylan River’s direction and choreography of capturing this iconic event proves that he’s one of the finest new talents in Australia, with his keen affection and interest in the race being a purely tangible one. Finke: There and Back is like Free Solo by way of Mad Max: Fury Road: a white-knuckle tense race, with the risk of death and injury not far away, and a smattering of pure Australiana. As great a documentary as you’ll ever find, and one that definitely will satiate your inner-petrol head. A must see.

Director: Dylan River

Narration: Eric Bana

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian film and culture. He is the co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, a Golden Globes voter, and the author of two books on Australian film, The Australian Film Yearbook - 2021 Edition, and Lonely Spirits and the King. You can find him online trying to enlist people into the cult of Mac and Me.

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