A common refrain mentioned in reviews of immaculately shot films states, "You could take a frame of this movie and hang it in an art gallery." When you think about it, it's a silly rave, as cinema is just 24 photographs a second, and numerous photographs contain a painterly quality. Naturally, the films where this line can be most readily applied enjoy the contributions of cinematographers with the keenest sense of landscape and portrait photography. Ergo, the beauty of Walkabout should come as no surprise, given director/cinematographer Nicolas Roeg's involvement; case in point, this is the man as responsible, if not more so, for the look of David Lean's gorgeous epic Lawrence of Arabia as the film's actual cinematographer (Roeg was A.D.).
I say should, because not even a few glimpses of the film in online trailers could prepare me for the jaw-dropping, deeply atmospheric majesty of Roeg's natural compositions. The story of two schoolchildren abandoned in the Australian Outback, Walkabout emphasizes the harshness of the climate and its alien appearance to sheltered, city-dwelling children by heightening the reddish hue of the soil until the endless desert comes to resemble the Martian landscape, a light science fiction touch echoed when the frequency of the two kids' portable radio modulates in otherworldly tones over a shot of the Moon. Cleaned up for Criterion's restoration, the tone poetry of Walkabout's alternately beautiful and terrifying landscapes and carefully edited close-ups make a case not for hanging some of its frames in a museum -- and some shots, like those of an Aboriginal boy standing utterly immobile in front of a setting sun, could be in an instant -- but to show the entire thing in as many art galleries as possible, achieving its full power in the manner in which it is meant to be exhibited. After all, who would ever cut up a painting just because one section of it was so good it could be placed in its own exhibit?
The children, named Peter and Mary in James Vance Marshall's source novel but left nameless here, are first seen back in Sydney without a care in the world. They even swim in a pool located just off the bank of Port Jackson, as if choosing the chemical blue of their artificial bubble over Australia's natural water supply mere feet away. Their father, a geologist, looks on with a strange look on his face, and we know something is wrong. The next day, he takes the kids for a picnic out in the bush, where he suddenly snaps and shoots at his children before torching his car and committing suicide. The girl (Jenny Agutter) protects her younger brother (Roeg's son, Luc) from the truth, and the two move away from the vehicle, deeper into unforgiving terrain. After several days' worth of stumbling around searching for oases, the two find a Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) on his walkabout. The young man does not speak English, and the white children do not know his language, but the three stick together, the Aborigine leading them through the Outback, seemingly just glad for the company.
From this simple setup comes a film that packs numerous meanings, many of them conflicting if not mutually exclusive, densely packing its trim 100 minutes -- and this is the unedited version -- with evocative editing, powerful imagery and minimal but devastating performances from all three young actors. The source novel is considered a children's classic in Australia, but Roeg reworks the material into a looser and much darker realm. Where the children of the book find themselves in the Outback after surviving a plane crash, the suicide of their father in the film creates a more shocking foundation for the kids' growth. Here, they need the Aborigine not simply for physical guidance back to their people but emotional and spiritual rehabilitation for their trauma.
Rather than shoot the Outback in flat, documentary-like framing, Roeg brings an improvisatory feel to his setting, filming whatever grabbed his fancy and editing together images of landscapes made vibrant and alive by heatwaves, broken up by shots of wildlife. Lizards skittering across the ground, bugs swarming over the carcasses of the creatures that did not survive the terrain, the tiny lifeforms that mingle with the humans and the larger mammals serve to make the Outback at once deathly tranquil and constantly teeming. Occasionally, Roeg and his team clearly saw something interesting and found themselves lacking the proper scope or film stock, but the resulting picture, distorted almost beyond recognition in heavy grain. Yet these shots are as gorgeous, in their way, as the crystalline extreme long shots and sudden, higher-quality zooms, and the various forms that the images take recast the Outback in a borderline surreal light. Indeed, the film that popped into my mind most often while watching Walkabout was The Night of the Hunter, another surreal fairy tale about children taking in a world much bigger and stranger than they can fully process while outrunning death (and another kid's film that's far too twisted for children).
As the two white children follow the lean, jovial black teen through the bush, Roeg gently brings to light the nascent sexuality of the older teens. Eyeline matches of the Aborigine checking out the girl's sun-scorched, sore legs with more than just friendly care and the girl ogling his sweat-glistened muscles plant wisps of desire in the minds of those who have never truly felt it before. Fittingly, the setting of Walkabout serves almost as an ironic visualization of the terror of sexual awakening, a barren wasteland where parents not up for the job of explaining the most crucial, confusing and frightening stage of physical and emotional development in a person's life abandon their kids to simply figure it out as best they can. When Agutter swims in a pond naked in the film's most famous sequence, her playful splashes are not simply a means of cooling off in the harsh desert but of flirtatious display to the Aborigine. (Unbeknown to her, the girl's brother sees her as well, perhaps setting off the first confused feelings that will root the eventual growth of hormones that currently ensnare the older children). Roeg further emphasizes the sexual nature of the film with cutaways to other groups of people in the Outback: a team of Western researchers looks for a downed weather balloon, or at least that was their assigned task. In reality, the men of the team ogle the lone female among them, trying so hard to peek down her lab coat that their heads practically sway with the wind-blown blouse. When the woman even adjusts in her seat, her nylons scratch against each other with hilariously deafening sound, causing the men to whip around and ignore everything else. Heck, even the music that the two city kids primarily receive on their radio is rock, the most blatantly sexual music around.
Yet Roeg introduces a larger, more complex and far more despairing theme of broken communication between people. The Aborigine and the white children can communicate basic ideas like "water" and "rest" through pantomime, but the two teenagers cannot confess their budding feelings for each other. Again, Roeg's asides function as thematic support rather than simple tangents: some of the men in the research team speak Italian and do not seem to contribute much to the English-speaking scientists. The three children later pass a small village where a white Australian essentially forces Aborigine children into slave labor. The people likely cannot understand him, and his falsely avuncular attitude belies a disregard for the natives. When his mistress arrives, he heads in to his home to bed her, and his actions with the white woman are as perfunctory and walled-off as his taskmaster behavior with the natives he "employs."
But Roeg does not simply suggest walls of communication between races or sexes. That is facile material for hack stand-up comedians. No, Roeg puts forward the dark notion that we are all locked into the parameters of our social programming. Rather than portray native society as noble and pure and European civilization as corrupt and arrogant, Roeg focuses on the traits all humans share, for better and worse. The Aboriginal boy spears an animal and clubs it to death, and before the audience can think to call his actions barbaric, the director intercuts shots of a white butcher back in the city casually chopping up meat with a cleaver. The Aborigine shows an amount of respect for his surroundings by eating what he kills, but he also engages in a fair amount of bloodsport, almost cheerily chasing around animals and killing them to prove his ability to dominate in the wild (and possibly impress his new companions). Only when white poachers blaze through in a jeep, casually firing on every animal in the vicinity and driving off as quickly as they arrived does the upbeat feeling of the boy's spree suddenly feel cold.
The sexual tension between the older boy and girl, of course, is the biggest indication of the subtle ways in which we are all connected, yet Roeg still fashions a film about people who cannot break through barriers that separate them, barriers that have nothing to do with language, as shown by the girl figuring out the Aboriginal word for "water." What separates them is their entire perception of the world, and because of that they can never be together. In the film's best, most stunningly shot and most heartbreaking sequence, the Aborigine attempts to communicate his love for the girl in the only way he knows how: a mating dance. As the girl walks through an abandoned barn, Roeg pulls the camera back and up to show the boy following parallel from behind a wall, occasionally slipping past windows and door frames. Finally, he dons tribal paint and engages in an intricate but mysterious dance, so focused that the confused girl fearfully rejects him without realizing his intentions. The next morning, the boy has hanged himself from a nearby tree. The book kills the native through a flu virus that the inoculated Western children carry but do not catch. A surprisingly open display of anti-imperialist sentiment, this ending has a touch of didacticism that Roeg eschews. In his vision, the boy is driven to despair by the epiphany that he cannot reach and touch someone who's standing right next to him. Perhaps that explains the father's explosion at the beginning: a geologist sent into the Outback to study it, he found only a place so vast and unique that it broke his conception of the world and took his sanity in the process.
One should not hunt too desperately for a clear meaning, however. To assign a flat reading to so open a visual poem would be reductive and counterproductive to the movie's atmospheric presentation. The combination of still landscapes and bustling shots of scuttling lifeforms allows Roeg to use the Outback as its own dimension, a place that isolates its travelers from the social ties that bind them before introducing a whole wave of creatures to force people into finding a more universal outlook; remember that Roeg often punctuates the action and emotion with a eerily perfect shot of nearby life matching what was just seen or felt. Unfortunately, humans lack the mental fortitude to survive such a reprogramming, so they either kill themselves or escape back to their previous lives.
Ergo, Roeg throws in a completely different perspective at the end that radically alters the perception of the film, that of nostalgia. The girl, grown up and married, has long since returned to Sydney and readjusted to "normal" life. But when her husband returns home and excitedly launches into boring details of his upcoming promotion in an uninteresting bureaucracy, she flashes back to her time in the wild, swimming naked with her brother and the boy.
This nostalgic remembrance obviously suggests that, for all the Outback's danger and all the tragedy it foisted upon her, it remains a symbol of freedom and uninhibited growth for the girl. The use of ethereal recordings of children's songs, both delicate and foreboding, throughout the kids' adventure in the Outback underscores this: these reworked nursery rhymes look to the past past even as these kids are being pushed permanently away from those simpler days into adulthood. What becomes clear in this penultimate scene, however, is that even adulthood is a false promise: truly great films about maturation cannot play to adolescents, because you can't understand what is to grow up until you've been through the ordeal yourself and figure out that adulthood is really no different than childhood. That's why the boy, who realized that his future was his past, killed himself in hopeless depression, while the girl can withstand this epiphany because she only understands the dark truth in retrospect. In a world comprising areas that have either been Westernized or ruined by Westernized nations, the untamed Outback of Walkabout may be the last place on Earth that can force us to confront this, and that's more terrifying than all the spiders, snakes and crocodiles that roam the area.