WALKABOUT — CLASSIC FILM PICK
After sharing directing duties with Donald Cammell in 1970, on the groundbreaking experimental film "Performance" (starring Mick Jagger), Nicolas Roeg began an exceptionally fruitful career as a filmmaker with a singularly unique approach to cinematic storytelling.
Based loosely on a novel by James Vance Marshall, Roeg's first solo effort is a complex treatise on ecology, racism, and a culture clash between primitive man and his industrially-bound white neighbors.
Roeg employs an unsettling sonic landscape of radio-wave aural stimulus to underscore the harsh juxtaposition between modern technology and the sounds of the natural world. Noisy transistor radio squeals and beeps screech in a harmonic disruption to the sounds of birds and buzzing insects.
A wealthy Australian businessman takes his 14-year-old daughter and six-year-old son into the parched Outback for a picnic. The children are dressed in their private school uniforms. The superficially successful father drives the siblings in his black Volkswagen bug until it runs out of gas in the desert. As the lanky daughter sets food out on a scarf, a portable radio provides a pop music soundtrack. Her six-year-old brother plays on a cluster of rocks. After viewing them through binoculars, the father takes out a pistol and fires on his offspring. They flee. He sets the car on fire and blows out his brains. Thus begins our desperate tale of familial survival.
The freshly minted refugee siblings begin a journey for subsistence that mirrors the "walkabout" tradition of a 16-year-old Aborigine boy they meet along the way. He lives alone, off of the land, just as his tribal ancestors have done for thousands of years. He will rescue the boy and girl from a terrible fate. The favor will not be returned. Quite the opposite.
The camera's frame of reference also provides a hallucinatory vantage point. A brick wall that covers the entire screen can obscure a busy street or reveal a wide-open desert terrain. Roeg’s carefully planned use of juxtaposition flavors every scene. Memories flash in still frames to form a fragmented collage structure. Time can stop. Transparent camels from the past walk across the desert, their depleted carcasses are there too.
The long-limbed Aborigine boy (David Gulpilil) wears only a small loincloth. The pubescent girl wears a short gray skirt and a white schoolgirl blouse. The native boy’s skin is dark and yet immune to the unrelenting sun, while the Caucasian girl’s pale flesh burns and blisters. The sexual tension that enflames between them is diffused by their inability to communicate through language. He speaks from the heart in his native tongue. She speaks in a British accent that stresses strict codes of behavior she has learned by rote in private schools. Her younger brother carries two spears that he uses to kill the lizards, kangaroo, and buffalo, which he learns to cook. The pair adapt well under their black guide’s assistance.
"Walkabout" is a poetic film that incorporates a collective subconscious of humanitarian values. It reveals those mores being broken just as politicians, corporations, and local exploiters of every stripe smash them daily in every corner of the globe. This haunting film is a tragedy regarding imperialism, capitalism, and racism. You won’t forget “Walkabout.” See it on a big screen.
Rated R. 95 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)