Nicholas Roeg's "Walkabout" is a Spiritual Journey


A walkabout is an Australian aboriginal ritual right of passage a young boy makes to become a man.  Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 film “Walkabout” is a study of humanity and the clashes of old and new.  Juxtaposing the fast and furious city life to that of the slowed-down outback and quite the shock for a couple of kids who like the aboriginal boy are thrust into the harsh landscape to fend for themselves.

A teenage girl, played by Jenny Agutter, and her little brother, the director's son Luc, play unnamed characters who are going out on a picnic with their father.  Not to Hanging Rock mind you, but into the flat and desolate outback.  The father character, played by John Meillon, remains in the VW Bug rather distraught as he looks at his newspaper and listens to the radio.  The children investigate the landscape and the girl sets up the picnic area.  Then shockingly the reason for the picnic becomes clear, the father takes out a gun and fires on the kids, who duck for cover.   He then douses the car in gasoline and lights it up, then kneeling before it raises the gun to his head and fires.  In shock, the kids gather their few possessions and head into the landscape.  Roeg keeps the cameras eye on various different animals that populate the outback usually opening a new scene with a different animal, the character has now entered an area where they are also one of the animals.

The kids roam the dusty expanse in the full sun with no clear destination.  Nearing exhaustion they finally find an oasis, a small watering hole with trees and little fruits.  They bathe, drink, and rest until the next morning when everything has dried up.  With their survival in doubt a figure appears on the horizon, its an aboriginal boy hunting lizards.  The boy is played by David Gulpilil who has since had a long career of playing aboriginal characters. “Walkabout” being his film debut he plays a character about the same age as the girl about 16 or so.  Although there is a language barrier, he helps them out with survival techniques and companionship.  He is your average teenage boy, he likes to goof around and has an amazing smile.  Undertones of sexuality begin to filter in as their journey continues, although still with no destination in sight.  There is a quick cut montage of the aboriginal boy hunting and the girl swimming naked.  Death, beauty, and survival are the themes that rule in the outback.

They end up finding the abandoned ruins of a farm and set up camp there for the foreseeable future.  One of the main overarching themes of the film is of the white man's desecration of the native people and their lands, similar to the United States.  The aboriginal boy disappears for a while and returns to perform what looks to be a mating ritual.  He is painted white and dances outside the household plants in each hand.  From the girl's point of view, this looks to be a frightening and menacing dance.  All through this he is silent and makes strange facial expressions.  She stays away from him in fear while he does this dance all throughout the night.  Things happen that I don’t want to give away in this review, but the girl is obviously left changed by her experiences in the outback. 

“Walkabout” is a great film that has so many things to say.  It is the death of innocence, a comment on modern (1971) society, and mainly of the human condition.  It is made by a master filmmaker and deserves to be seen by all.