Synopsis: A young sister and brother are abandoned in the harsh Australian outback and must learn to exist in the natural world, without their usual comforts, in this hypnotic masterpiece from Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth). Along the way, they meet a young aborigine on his “walkabout,” a rite of passage in which adolescent boys are initiated into manhood by journeying into the wilderness alone. Walkabout is a thrilling adventure as well as a provocative rumination on time and civilization.
I’m not really sure what to make of ‘Walkabout’. The first time that I saw it, some 10-12 years, ago, I was immediately impressed with it. I still am. But I don’t truly know what the filmmakers’ intention was or what its message might be. I mean, it’s clear that it has something to say.
Is it a comment on modern society? Is it a highlight of how, as supposed sophisticated, civilized people, we have actually uprooted ourselves to the point that our very survival is at risk? Are we supposed to reflect on the idea that, being handed everything on a silver platter, we are unable to function when it is taken away?
Or is the film supposed to make a statement on the way Aboriginals are perceived in Australia? I know very little of the situation there in the early ’70s, but if it’s anything like the one in North America, there’s likely a gross misunderstanding of the people indigenous to the land. Perhaps the film is meant to highlight commonalities and ward off feelings of superiority?
Or is ‘Walkabout’ allegorical? Is it meant to pose existential questions that would otherwise be difficult to express in another context? Is the walkabout something more than the mere coming-of-age of a 16-year-old boy? Could it have something to do with humanity in general, about the human race’s separation from the rest of the “tribe”, about the way we survive on our own?
Or could it be all of those things?
There are arguments for each of those elements, firstly in the way that the children are almost incapable of surviving by themselves once they are left alone; they have rudimentary skills, but are generally clueless. For the second argument, there are constant parallels being drawn between “modern” behaviours and aboriginal ones – as well as blatant condescension when things return to normal. As for the third argument, the film is littered with various commentary being broadcast from the children’s radio – it may sound absurd at first, but there’s a consistent existentialist thread.
Whatever the case may be, ‘Walkabout’ is slightly abstract and is certainly not meant to be taken literally. After all, there are a number of minor things that take place inexplicably, as though in a dream – such as the sudden disappearance of the water and fruit at the oasis. It doesn’t make sense at all and shouldn’t be taken at face value. But what does it mean? Does it tie into the end, which would suggest that it was all a daydream? Was it actually a memory? Or was it an embellished recollection of something the girl left behind and now longs for?
The idea that it never actually took place, or that it’s a daydream based on a largely different life experience, makes complete sense given how random or inexplicable some elements seem to be, like the father’s sudden psychotic attack or the fact that the children wander about without getting sunburnt, dehydrating or starving. Even the subtle eroticism layered into many scenes suggest fantasy more so than reality. And let’s not forget the nude swimming sequence, which was obviously meant to be titillating.
To me, it all suggests a bored housewife, stimulating her imagination as she awaits her husband’s return from work.
I can’t support this argument, of course, as I think it’s an incredibly subjective experience and most people will take something different from watching ‘Walkabout’; even Roger Ebert seemed unsure of the film’s meaning in his own assessment. The fact that it was loosely based on the novel, and that director Nicolas Roeg improvised much of the shooting doesn’t much help to shed any light on the matter, to create a clear indication of his intentions. His audio commentary on the disc doesn’t help either.
Be that as it may, I think that ‘Walkabout’ is a terrific cinematic experience; it offers a hazy, almost hallucinogenic, adventure through the outback with a trio of characters as sympathetic as they are inscrutable. It’s a unique motion picture of the kind that will likely bore to death those with a preference for spoon-fed, fast-paced gloss and will enchant -if not entrance- those who enjoy abstract and/or poetic fare, who have a penchant for more intellectual pursuits.