A nightmarish coming-of-age tale with striking visuals and enigmatic themes, Walkabout is a film I still do not entirely understand, but will not soon forget. Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 film set in the Australian outback embodies the essence of the cinematic—this is a work of art which explores the full extent of its medium, playing to cinema’s strengths even as it pushes its boundaries. Through its use of cinematography and editing, it tells less of a story and sets more of a mood, evoking the experience of adolescence both in its form and content.
The film’s narrative centers on an adolescent girl and her young brother, who are driven out into the Australian wilderness by their father, a stuffy suit-and-tie Englishman, prim and proper. Already a bit out of their environment—Brits living in Australia—the film further pushes these characters into unknown territory as the father unexpectedly begins firing a gun at his children, ultimately killing himself after he sets fire to their car, leaving his offspring alone in bush. These opening narrative scenes come immediately after a montage of images contrasting the outback with the urban lifestyle in Sydney, as well as hinting at sexual themes and undertones. A quick cut to a group of adolescent girls all breathing heavily and uttering groans in unison evokes a not-too-subtle eroticism, even as it’s eventually recognized to be a choir practice.
As a title screen explains, the “walkabout” is an aboriginal rite of passage for young men in a tribe. Sent off on their own to hunt and live off the land, they leave as boys and return as men. After wandering in the Australian desert for days, and nearing the point of exhaustion and death, the two English siblings encounter a young man on his walkabout, even as they face their own unexpected rite of passage and loss of innocence. From two entirely different cultures and languages, the unlikely trio form a bond as the aboriginal boy provides food and water for the untrained youths. A friendship forms between the boys, while a budding, tragic romance may or may not emerge between the two young teens.
There’s a strange scene near the midpoint of the film where a team of scientists in the flat, stark landscape of the desert lose some weather balloons. An Australian scientist, surrounded by what seem to be blue-collar Italian assistants, does his best to flirt with his sole female colleague. His efforts are awkward and eventually thwarted, while the woman puts on airs to seem oblivious to her Italian cohort’s advances, though she seems secretly pleased by the attention. All this just to show the origins of a bright red weather balloon the wandering youth discover. The large red orb immediately called to mind the classic French film about childhood, The Red Balloon. When the red balloon in Walkabout suddenly pops and gives the aboriginal boy a scare, it’s a powerful image of childhood and innocence lost.
Interspersed throughout the film are shots of animals and wildlife—lizards and insects, cows and kangaroos. The boy hunts many of these animals and kills them for food as part of his coming-of-age ritual, as well as mere survival. It was disturbing to watch kangaroos being speared and clubbed to death, and one could make the case to designate Walkabout as a horror film. Its random and unnatural act opening act of violence which sets the two children on their journey is like something from a nightmare, and the close-up shots of death cows, ants, flies, lizards, and the cooking corpses of kangaroo meat in a fire are all unsettling. Walkabout is frightening, confusing, affecting, and unforgettable—just like going through adolescence.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067959/