Iconoclastic British filmmaker Nicolas Roeg defined his cinematic identity with Walkabout, the first feature he directed alone. Previously, he earned notoriety as the cinematographer of stylish films including Petulia (1968), and he tested the directorial waters by co-helming the bizarre crime flick Performance (1970) with Donald Cammell. Yet Roeg’s distinct style of brainiac surrealism didn’t fully emerge until Walkabout, which presents an ostensibly simple story in such a complex fashion that it acquires myriad layers of meaning.
The story involves two young children, a preadolescent boy and his teenaged sister, becoming stranded in the Australian outback. As they try to make their way toward civilization, they encounter a young Aborigine man on “walkabout,” the coming-of-age ritual in which he must wander the wilderness, and the trio forms a surrogate family until their inevitable separation. Within this straightforward framework, Roeg addresses burgeoning sexuality, cultural misunderstanding, the savagery of the natural world, and other provocative themes.
Shooting with a documentarian’s eye for miniscule details like insects skittering across granules of sand, Roeg studies his characters and their environment meticulously; it’s as if he’s observing unexpected chemical reactions instead of interpersonal dynamics. The unusual nature of the film is evident right from the first important scene, when the children’s father drives his kids into the wilderness, opens fire on them with a gun, douses his body and car in gasoline, starts a fire, and shoots himself. In Roeg’s bleak cinematic universe, capricious fate is an everyday danger, so whenever his characters start to feel comfortable in their lives, a shock is never far behind.
Working from a persausive script by Edward Bond, which was based on a novel by James Vance Marshall, Roeg shows equal interest in everything from the intuitive wanderings of the young boy’s nonstop chattering to the quiet naturalism of the Aborigine’s hunting-and-gathering lifestyle. The picture even cuts away periodically to snippets of native and foreign culture in Australia, glimpsing places tangentially related to the main characters.
This is all very heady stuff for an outdoor-survival story, and yet the picture also makes room for the artsy leering that permeates so much of Roeg’s filmography. Roeg, who also photographed the movie, regularly lingers on leading lady Jenny Agutter’s body, particularly during a long nude swim, and this visual preoccupation is noteworthy given how intensely sexual Roeg’s subsequent pictures became.
Although quite restrained by comparison to those subsequent pictures, Walkabout is nonetheless a strange film by comparison to, say, the average Hollywood release—the impressionistic editing moves the film along with offbeat rhythms, and the script refuses to employ simple paradigms like lampooning white culture’s foibles or venerating native culture’s virtues. As challenging as it is weirdly beautiful, Walkabout disallows easy interpretations.