Enthralling at surface level but challenging underneath, Walkabout is a movie that’s more than the sum of its parts. It adheres to a few recognisable subgenres (one could contend it’s a mix of a road movie and a coming-of-age tale), yet such distractions are not what this picture is truly about. Director Nicolas Roeg has crafted a deceptively simple film which is primarily about how technology is starting to overwhelm natural beauty, about both the simplicity and difficulty of communication between different cultures, and about how human experiences with unbridled nature have become corrupted by their inherent need for man-made barriers.
While on a picnic in the desert with his children, an unnamed father (Meillon) has a homicidal and suicidal breakdown, shooting at his teenage daughter (Agutter) and young son (Roeg) with a pistol before setting their car on fire and killing himself. Physically unharmed, the teenage girl – known simply as Girl – shields the truth of his father’s madness from her younger brother, and they set out into the harsh, desolate landscape of the Australian outback with limited supplies. The future seem bleak for the pair until they run into an Aboriginal boy (Gulpilil) on his “walkabout” (that is, a rite of passage for the Aborigines wherein an adolescent is sent to live in the wilderness and forced to live off the land by himself). Although unable to verbally communicate, the three form an unlikely trio, and the Aboriginal boy shows the naïve city folk how to live off the land while guiding them back to civilisation.
Walkabout is not a film concerned with solid plotting. The minimalist script was a scant 14 pages long, as the movie’s predominantly improvised midsection simply follows the trio of protagonists as they aimlessly wander through the Australian outback. Director Nicolas Roeg used this simple premise to construct a mediation on several issues. Most notably, Walkabout is a discourse about mankind’s industrial supremacy over nature, as Roeg contrasts shots of animals and nature against areas of Australia overwhelmed by technology and industry. Roeg also highlights that primitive Aboriginal traditions and customs have no place in modern culture due to the rapidly-expanding nature of urban development. Such advancements may make life easier, but life in the wild can sometimes be preferable to the bleakness of modern society. Walkabout additionally points out that city dwellers are ill-equipped when it comes to living off the land. Humans would be utterly lost without technology, so what would happen in the event of technology being relinquished? It’s provocative themes like this which make Roeg’s movie such a keeper. Surely a technological meltdown is imminent, meaning that Walkabout will never be thematically outdated.
Nicolas Roeg initially worked on motion pictures as a cinematographer. Putting his considerable talents to good use, Roeg both directed and photographed Walkabout. This is very much a picture about nature, as Roeg’s shots linger on the varied and vivid landscapes of Australia, highlighting the beauty of a sunset or observing the exotic nature of creatures which are found in the Aussie outback. Additionally, Roeg did not baulk at capturing the harsher, more dangerous side of the desert, and the photography doesn’t always paint a pretty picture. Thanks to Roeg’s visual instincts, Walkabout could easily work as a silent film, and therefore dialogue is fairly minimal. John Barry’s engaging score also represents a strong accompaniment to the visuals.
As Roger Ebert noted in his various writings about Walkabout, this is a movie about communication and human behaviour. By showing that the trio of protagonists for the most part get along despite communicative barriers, Roeg appears to underline that people can live together in harmony without the influence of industrialisation. Such concepts are upheld extraordinarily well by the actors, all of whom submitted strong, intuitive performances. Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg (the director’s son) interact like real siblings, while David Gulpilil’s performance has an assured charm to it despite the fact that Gulpilil recited dialogue in his native language without the aid of subtitles. For the record, this has to be one of the most inappropriately-watched arthouse movies in history thanks to Agutter’s full-frontal nudity. Yet, none of the nudity feels gratuitous; it shows how comfortable Girl and her brother become with both their Aboriginal companion and the natural environment.
If anything is to be criticised, it’s that some of Walkabout‘s narrative material is difficult to swallow. For example, the father’s breakdown seems unmotivated, and it seems odd that the Aboriginal would agree to let two strangers tag along with him. The ending, meanwhile, is dangerously undercut, with missing bridge material. Not to mention, a few cinematic techniques are overdone and intrusive. Such techniques don’t enhance the imagery or story in any effective way, so they merely come across as the product of tacky ’70s moviemaking styles. Flaws aside, Walkabout is a masterful treatise on communication, culture clashes and the evils of technology. This may be a picture about children, but it feels genuinely adult. Although the pacing is not always immaculate, Walkabout‘s countless moments of brilliance make it a true must-see.