Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
The title Walkabout, stated in a clear disclaimer at the beginning of the film, refers to an aboriginal practice in which boys, at the start of their maturation, leave their tribe and are forced to live off the land. The action is a requisite step of youth, and spells an uncertain fate.
Walkabout is the directorial debut of Nicolas Roeg, formerly a cinematographer. The film received ample raves upon its 1971 release, and was unavailable in any format until a revived print was released in 1996. Fortunately, its lengthy tenure of absence has done little to obscure its message.
The film may be appreciated solely for its photography. The Australian outback is seen as an unending expanse, flooding the horizon in each direction, displaying no hint of a nearby coast. During the trail of the three central characters areas of vegetation are passed, as are deserts and hills composed of individual and disconnected boulders. The landscape is distant, exotic, and often beautiful. Despite its beauty it is an indifferent and often uninviting place that promises no comfort.
The three characters are a white boy, white girl (brother and sister), and a black man; the three share the same titles in the credits, and their names are never given. This detail makes Walkabout’s commentarial stance obvious, and there are numerous examples that reinforce it. The characters because of their anonymity are collectively relevant — they are archetypes and Walkabout may be seen as an allegory.
The film opens with static shots of natural surfaces: rock walls and dirt grounds. The sequence is completed with similarly staged shots of brick walls and pavement. This signifies the juxtaposition of nature and society, of naturalization and modernization. It is at play in every minute of the film. In an early scene the girl proudly fashions a sun umbrella with a branch; and later, the group finds an abandoned house reclaimed by natural growth. Both instances display a forced relationship between what is natural and unnatural.
The white boy is very young, six or seven, and his sister is at the threshold of adolescence. The two are driven to the barren landscape by their father for a picnic. The father shoots at his children with a pistol. The pair flees, and the girl looks back to see her father has shot himself and ignited the car in flames. Strangely, neither of them are very affected by their father’s death. Although rightfully frightened, they display no remorse or concern.
The two are dressed in private school getup, and lumber across the terrain with a radio and a bulky picnic basket. Because of their previous comforts, perhaps, the two do not feel threatened. The sister constantly reaffirms her brother’s concerns, and insists on maintaining a civil demeanor: after a bath in a muddy pond, she urges her brother to keep his blazer nicely folded. “We don’t want people to think we’re a couple of tramps.” “What people?” he effectively notices.
It is never apparent that the brother and sister feel pessimistic. They display their naivety by eating an unknown fruit off a tree without questioning its potential threat. They are young, and their stalwart idealism stifles a careful perseverance that may keep them alive. Threat is all around them; it is seen plainly to us, in close-ups of carnivorous lizards and snakes — always in the pair’s view.
The two find a meager oasis, the singular green spot in their widely expansive view, and claim it, victim to great fatigue. Soon after an aborigine boy passes (he is roughly the same age as the girl) — on his walkabout — and they join him.
At this point the mechanic intentions of the film become apparent. Walkabout’s obvious concern is the relationship between the two parties, separated by centuries of diverting societal behaviors, and thus, differentiated perceptions of sexual roles and etiquette. But what ensues is more ambiguous and interpretative than what this theme suggests. In the film’s most revealing scene, the trio bathes in a crystal lake. It is an Eden, a paradise absent of any modern influence. The scene represents the most fundamentally natural the group’s relationship will be. It is a fleeting, tragic moment, one that the girl will not truly evaluate until many years later (in a flash-forward closing the film) in the prohibitive marital bond. To emphasize: the scene is both beautiful and tragic, and its establishment of these dichotomous extremes, while prohibiting the pinnacle employment of either, illustrates but one of Walkabout’s interpretations.
One of the film’s less poignant elements is its commentary on hunting violence. The aborigine hunts frequently during the film (he spears a kangaroo on two occasions, and the scenes do not appear to be staged). During his hunts, footage of a butcher is interspersed, suggesting, perhaps, some humanistic necessity or purpose in killing (there are many, similar instances of animals hunting each other). But there is a later scene that counters this. Wrestling with a bull, the aborigine looks up and quickly dodges a pair of hunters in a jeep (the brother and sister are not present to witness those in their company) who proceed to shoot another bull with a rifle. One hunter approaches his game, and disconnects its jugular artery, emptying a deluge of blood. The scene is grisly, as it is intended, and contradicts the prior images of the butcher. The actions of the butcher and aborigine are not as inherently violent or unnatural as the hunters’.
There is sexual tension between the black boy and white girl, though not in even the most conventional sense. There is tension self-contained in each body, because neither is prepared or experienced to confront their sexual curiosity — which is in abundance. Only the boy risks exploiting the issue, by engaging in a tribal mating dance. He paints a white design over his body, and moves around the girl in pivoting gestures. The dance elicits no reaction in the girl other than fear. This action denotes one of the larger themes in the film, that of the inability (or lack of desire) to communicate.
The brother and, more so, the sister are seen as the targets of the film’s commentary. However, there is no established defense for the aborigine boy. The film does regard him sympathetically, to be sure, yet his upbringing is as responsible for the cultural gap dividing the party as the siblings’.
The strength of Walkabout is its resistance to supply a conclusion for its otherwise predictable trajectory. It is ambiguous whether or not a certain character is valued over another, as they are all displayed with flaws. Walkabout is an extraordinarily thoughtful and provocative film and its concerns are entirely valid.