Review of Walkabout

Walkabout (1971)
Roeg's first masterpiece
13 October 2008
Warning: Spoilers
"Nicholas Roeg's trademarks are very clear: beautiful cinematography, extensive inter-cutting, a willingness to be mildly experimental and a basic thematic preoccupation with the sudden collision of different cultures or lifestyles. Whether these characteristics are sufficient to sustain a director's career, or to form the basis for distinguished achievement within commercial cinema, remains problematic." - Chuck Kleinhans (1974)

Apparently Roeg's preoccupations weren't enough to sustain his career. In the 1970s he made a string of great films, but by the late 1980s Roeg had all but disappeared from cinema.

"Walkabout" (1971), regarded by many as Roeg's finest film, offers a deceptively simple story. Here a father drives his young daughter and son out into the Australian desert. He harbours sexual feelings for his daughter and so, in an attempt to end his lusts, plots to kill both his children. His murderous plan fails, however, and the kids escape. The father then puts a gun in his mouth and commits suicide.

The two children thus find themselves stranded in the middle of the Australian Outback. They make their way across the desert, but are unprepared for this harsh environment.

Luckily, an adolescent aboriginal boy on his "walkabout" (a tribal rites of passage) finds the two kids. He helps them forage for food and water, and gladly escorts them back to civilisation. But like the father, the aboriginal boy soon becomes sexually attracted to the young girl. He's seduced by her beauty, her short school skirt and pale skin. He performs a mating dance, but due to a lack of understanding, the girl rejects the boy's ritualistic advances. The boy commits suicide.

Slowly Reog's themes coalesce: "Walkabout's" entire male cast seems seduced by the film's female protagonist (Jenny Agutter), the girl an innocent siren who lures men to their deaths.

The first male to fall under the girl's spell, of course, is her father. This unhealthy romantic interest is the only reason presented for his insanity. Later, the girl's brother will spy on her swimming unclothed in a lagoon. Not even his young years can spare him from her enchantment. Then there's the aboriginal saviour, who toward the end of film performs a vibrant mating dance. It is in this relationship where the film's sexual contrasts are made most clear. Roeg's males are beholden to the unreachable girls whims, needs, and beauty.

As such, there is sense of unattainability apparent in each relationship: father cannot be with daughter, brother with sister or "savage" with lady. It is even accentuated through the girl's attire: her school uniform is prohibitive of romantic interest.

The film is bookended by two strange deaths, which are both suicides and seemingly caused by the girl. However, she does not seem bothered by these deaths and simply accepts them as being part of her nature. This adds a tragic dimension to everything that happens in the film, making the girl's eventual salvation depressing rather than hopeful.

Roeg's second big theme is that of communication. The urban kids rely on verbal language and find security in the constant warble of a portable radio. In contrast, communication with the native is effective only through crude physical gestures. Thus, the cultured and the pre-industrial can't communicate. It's this lack of communication, an inability to converse on the same wavelength with the female, that dooms the man. He withers in the desert, while she walks free, blissfully unaware of the power she holds over him.

The film is also obsessed with creating fleeting juxtapositions. A burning car is crosscut with a roasting animal carcass. The urban children are first seen together in a swimming pool next to an ocean, whilst later they'll be surrounded by the arid desert. Western clothing is contrasted with the native's nakedness. The native hunts with spears, whilst a team of European scientists (also on a sort of Western walkabout) are shown hunting game with rifles and jeeps. Similarly, shots of the native cutting apart a kangaroo for dinner are contrasted to an urban butchers shop.

These juxtapositions are simple (wet/dry, naked/clothed, technology/primitive) and Roeg never develops them into anything beyond a superficial language, but they do help to elevate the film above the typical siren fable (mermaids, lady in the lake etc).

In a typical "sirens allegory", it is simply female beauty which poses a deadly threat to man. In "Walkabout", this threat is expanded. The film's not simply about the rapturous beauty of women, but rather the desires of man to conquer, master and possess. Looked at this way, the film can be broken down into clear compartments: man seeks to conquer woman, but fails. Thus, man goes on a "walkabout", a masculine rites of passage to prove his manhood (native boy, scientists etc). Through this rites of passage, man learns to conquer environment, and through this, superiority is gained over woman. Woman submits, man is happy. Only woman does not submit; preternatural and ghostly, she mocks his pretence.

9/10 - Makes a good companion piece to Welles' "F For Fake", Malick's "Days of Heaven" and Altman's "3 Women".
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