Release Date: Available Now
Director/Cinematographer: Nicolas Roeg
Writers: James Vance Marshall (novel), Edward Bond (screenplay)
Starring: Jenny Agutter, David Gulpilil, Lucien John
Studio/Runtime: Criterion, 100 min.
After the 1990 Anjelica Huston vehicle The Witches, British director Nicolas Roeg slid into a netherworld of episodic TV fare and direct-to-video oblivion. But the man deserves a nod, if only for the heady run from his 1970 collaborative directorial debut Performance through 1980’s harrowing Bad Timing. (Just ask Wilco producer, former Sonic Youth guitarist and cinephile Jim O’Rourke, who has three solo albums that namecheck Roeg’s oeuvre.) But the director stands apart and above many of his contemporaries on the strength of one masterpiece alone: 1971’s Walkabout, a perfect cinematic experience.
Walkabout’s narrative follows an Australian sister and brother who encounter an indigenous boy performing the traditional Aboriginal coming-of-age rite: the walkabout. Based on the James Vance Marshall book of the same name, Edward Bond’s original screenplay totaled 14 pages (barely enough for a short film). In Roeg’s hands, it became a meditation on modern rituals and ancient ones, conflicts between the native Aboriginal and invasive European cultures, human language and storytelling, female and male gender roles and the misunderstanding between them, the cruelty of nature and the madness of the modern world.
This madness is dissected from the film’s opening sequence, which stands as one of cinema’s finest moments. Through fleeting images set against a jarring audio collage of Stockhausen, didgeridoo, and breathing lessons, Roeg deftly juxtaposes outback rock formations with brick walls, and a massive baobab tree with boxy office buildings. The boy (Roeg’s seven year-old son, Lucien) observes marching soldiers; his sister (Jenny Agutter) sits in a regimented class while their housewife mother prepares an exotic meal; their father regards his children splashing about in a bright swimming pool that abuts a dark sea.
Later, driving his children to the barren outback for a picnic, the father turns murderous, shouting at his progeny: “We can’t waste time!” while unloading a pistol at them, saving the last shot for himself (all the while, Rod Stewart plays on the radio). Uninjred, the siblings are abandoned to stagger through the inhospitable landscape, with Roeg’s zoom lens taking in the creatures scurrying about, oblivious to the human intruders. Delirious and near death, the girl shouts at her brother: “We can’t waste time!” Soon, the young Aborigine (David Gulpilil) appears and feeds and finds water for the two children. As a trio, they set out into a timeless world littered with detritus of industry.
Weird vignettes crop up to break the meditative mood—there is, for instance, bawdy Italian comedy involving weather balloons and a factory with Aborigines working for a white boss. But it’s the wordless relationship between the Aboriginal boy and Australian girl—both on the cusp of becoming adults in their respective societies—that is the film’s heart and soul. It’s a star-crossed coupling, with neither able to understand the other: The girl communicates in a language that’s alien to the boy, while the poignant, ritualistic mating dance he performs for her approval frightens rather than charms.
When describing the filmmaking process for Walkabout, Roeg disingenuously said: “We didn’t really plan anything—we just came across things by chance… filming whatever we found.” But Agutter, now grown, recalls the opposite: “There’s nothing in the film that just happened.” Nearly 40 years on the film remains enigmatic. It’s a commentary on unresolvable conflicts between races, cultures, generations, sexes; a vision that is at once primal and sophisticated. When the film circles back at the coda, we realize we’ve just traversed a brutal—yet flawless—cinematic landscape.