The opening minutes of Walkabout (1971) function as a sort of cinematic assault, amputating diverse components from the audiovisual corpus of modern urban existence—crowds and traffic, tall anonymous buildings and radio signals, swimming pools, classrooms, brick walls and ground beef—and pasting them together in such a way so as to induce creeping repulsion and a kind of vertigo in the viewer as efficiently as possible. Soon a father and his two children, Englishmen transplanted to Australia, are driving into the outback for a rather incongruous picnic. A portable radio broadcasts a program offering instruction on proper table manners.
The latent apocalypse of the film’s opening montage manifests in the father’s next actions, which seem to have been planned in advance. He takes a pistol and begins to fire it at the kids, who run and hide. He takes a jerry can and douses their Beetle. (By this point the radio’s playing Rod Stewart’s ‘Gasoline Alley,’ which is maybe some perverse subliminal prompt for dad’s incendiary psychosis.) He sets fire to the car and then turns the pistol on himself, firing a shot to the head then flopping on his back as though in relief. Within mere moments a banal family outing has transformed into a sunlit nightmare, the patriarch dead and the only means of escape from a hostile space destroyed. The resourceful teenage daughter (Jenny Agutter) tries to remain calm and is compelled to render this nightmare a sort of game for her much younger brother (Luc Roeg, credited as Lucien John), who didn’t actually see his father’s suicide, but the pair set out into the desert with no idea as to where to find shade, water, food, or help. They’re on their own, until they meet another youngster (David Gulpilil), also without parental guidance and protection, but blacker, better attuned to this undomesticated terrain, unable to speak or understand their language, but perfectly capable of guiding, feeding, and protecting them from the elements.
A general description of Walkabout might give the impression that the film assumes a then-highly fashionable blanket condemnation of Western values and a romanticized appraisal of Aboriginal values, the former making you crazy and violent and corrupt while the latter grants you strength and wisdom and life in a perpetual Eden. Indeed, there are sequences that feel a bit overwrought in their display of civilized versus primitive behaviour, such as the one which cuts jarringly between the Aborigine boy spearing and slaughtering a kangaroo and a white butcher in a white coat chopping up meat in a very sanitized butcher shop. But Walkabout demands a level of attentiveness that forces us to look beyond the broad brushstrokes, through the complexity of the interactions between its characters and images, through the ambiguities inherent in its narrative and lack of subtitles for the Aborigine’s dialogue, and through its sheer duration versus its number of dramatic events. There’s never any lack of tension, beauty, or fascination in its many scenes of hunting, swimming, frolicking, attempted communication, or, of course, walking, but there is a deliberate lack of conventional dramatic incident, which allows us to get closer to the characters and their strange dilemma with a bare minimum of exposition. By the time we reach the end of Walkabout, we come to realize that the film isn’t primarily concerned with moralizing or engaging in facile social critique. It’s a study in the difficulties of cultural adaptation, in the role of landscape in shaping identity, in how adolescent sexuality might emerge when left to its own devices, unfettered by the constant barrage of consumerist iconography encountered in city life. Put most simply, Walkabout is a coming of age story, without the usual distractions.
Walkabout was the first solo directing credit for Nicolas Roeg, the celebrated London cinematographer who’d recently co-directed Performance (70) with Donald Cammell. Adapted from James Vance Marshall’s novel by playwright Edward Bond, Walkabout exhibits the impressionistic, vaguely narcotic mise en scène that would characterize Roeg’s uniformly brilliant work over the next decade, in films such as Don’t Look Now (73) and Bad Timing (80). His liberal deployment of ostentatious wide angle pans, flash cuts, trippy dissolves, and ultra grainy optical zooms on insects and reptiles could be said to date the film, which emerged not so long after Easy Rider (69), yet Roeg comes by such techniques honestly, endowing them with psychological or emotional nuance specific to the needs of this story and its setting. Walkabout has aged so well in fact that the Criterion Collection is now releasing it a third time. The new DVD and Blu-ray features best-yet image and sound and new supplements, including interviews with Agutter and Luc Roeg, each about 20 minutes, and an hour-long documentary about the life of Gulpilil, the truly remarkable actor and dancer who got his start in movies with Walkabout and has since embodied just about every variation on the Aboriginal persona one can image, both sophisticated and silly, in the 40 years since.