Interpretation is at the heart of Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, not merely limited to the language barrier present between the unnamed white brother and sister who are led out of the Australian Outback by an Aborigine boy who finds them stranded during his walkabout. It ultimately says the same thing about life in the wild as most wilderness survival stories, idealizing the unfettered freedom of isolation and the beauty of nature, but before it gets to the inevitable conclusion about civilization being suffocating and dehumanizing, it toys with its characters’ perceptions, Roeg employing a number of shocking visual cues to register their reactions to their plight. Thanks to Roeg’s non-editorial depiction of the siblings’ journey, it’s fair to say that he earns his transcendental moral in the end.
It would spoil too much to describe how the siblings first become stranded, but the Girl (Jenny Agutter)’s struggle to come to terms with their predicament begins immediately, and Agutter plays the role with an unflappability that is reinforced by the urgent necessity of mothering her younger brother (White Boy, played by Roeg’s son Luc) into following her instructions. Through her quiet acceptance of what has happened to them, Roeg and Agutter let the capacity for Girl’s thoughts stretch as wide as the surrounding landscape, her face a blank slate against which any number of thoughts can be projected. Possibly the biggest challenge of the story is in following three characters who can’t practically communicate, who aren’t equals in terms of experience. Agutter’s Girl possesses maturity but no survival skills, her brother White Boy is energetic but too young to comprehend the seriousness of their situation, and David Gulpilil’s Black Boy has the survival skills but is ignorant to the psychological trauma of his two white charges. White Boy’s youthful chatter bounces off the others, even though Girl understands what he’s saying, just as Black Boy’s untranslated speech bounces off the siblings. Roeg therefore depicts their journey impressionistically, focusing on their intuitive compassion for one another, letting their actions do the talking. It’s with a bit of irony then that White Boy demonstrates the importance to their survival of human interaction through speech, diving into a long story for Black Boy later in their travels just to fill the air.
The children’s attempts to interpret their surroundings are conveyed by a gleefully intercutting Roeg, confidently splicing together shots to suggest where their minds are going during their journey. Black Boy’s butchering of wild game is spliced with images of an anonymous butcher chopping meat on his block. Each edit during White Boy’s long story takes the form of a turning page wiping across the screen. Taken alone, each visual analogy is jarring, even too obvious, but sprinkled throughout the movie they explain how Girl, White Boy, and even Black Boy process what they are experiencing while challenging the viewer to make the same cognitive leaps. Girl and White Boy’s life has been totally upended, and it’s only natural that they transform themselves by applying past experiences to new challenges. Black Boy’s hunter-gatherer ways are difficult to learn, but to him there’s nothing unusual in it, the unnerving implication being that very little separates them from civilization and survival, and with very little middle ground between.
The height of misunderstanding comes in the form of what could constitute the movie’s one subplot, which is Girl’s coming of age simultaneous with Black Boy’s walkabout, their impulses signaled by the most suggestive of Roeg’s splices, scenes of innocent horseplay interrupted by bodily closeups of the trio and other barely clad Aborigines. Their mutual attraction is Walkabout at its most dizzying and its most clear, filled with desires beyond basic survival that are strongly realized but impossible to communicate. Walkabout is notorious for introducing a generation of young males to the mysteries of the female form thanks to Agutter’s exhibitionism, but Girl’s and Black Boy’s lonely stares capture the real, excruciating feelings of fear and reluctance that blur the line between love and lust. At the same time, White Boy needn’t wait for a hormone rush to significantly alter his mindset, with Roeg projecting images of the Outback over a giant closeup of his ruminating face.
The Outback benefits well from Roeg’s wandering eye. He captures the sweeping vistas, vibrant colors, and diverse wildlife and mixes it all into one surreal landscape. At times swooning to the red beauty of the earth, other times freezing in the face of the unfamiliar, and all set to an erratic, precisely designed soundtrack, Walkabout is rightly praised as a lasting contribution to cinema, experimental in its narrative, audiovisually lively, both challenging and comforting all at once. Save for a couple of questionable interludes away from the central trio, it meanders just the right distance from its characters. The closer the siblings get to salvation, the more unsettling their surroundings, the tensions rising even as their delivery from danger looms. When they reach the cobbled intersection between their world and Black Boy’s, it reaches its devastating conclusion, eerie, haunting, and subject to a greater degree of misinterpretation – or worse, a refusal to acknowledge what is understood – than anything that has come before.