Review by Tope Ogundare
In the same way that ‘America’ was reimagined by a host of European émigré directors during Hollywood’s infancy, two defining heights of Australian cinema came courtesy of foreign eyes, both in 1971. One was Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright. The other was Walkabout, which introduced the world to the poise and sinewy command of sixteen-year-old Djinba-speaking David Gulpilil, and which pre-empted the dreamy pictorial rhythms that Terrence Malick would exhibit in Badlands (1973).
Deviating from James Vance Marshall’s source novel and kick-starting the narrative with a disconcerting, mood-setting and thematically telling act of violence, Briton Nicolas Roeg spins a trippy tale of two white expat kids suddenly astray in the outback and the black boy on walkabout who guides them – or vice versa, perhaps – to a disquieting destination of far greater psychic significance than a gentrified urban centre or some magical Dreamtime idyll could offer. Walkabout is a car-less road movie that runs on unfulfilled desire and unrealised dialogues; it’s a curious coming-of-age story wherein adulthood seems to be the true state of infancy. At times guardedly hopeful, Walkabout is ultimately a modernist tragedy, not unlike Roeg’s beloved Antonioni picture, L’Avventura (1961).
In Roeg’s hands, Walkabout immerses the viewer in a murk of subtext and suppositions, a stream of heightened images and sonic richness. The film sports a cock-eyed view of the colonial West, and in doing so mournfully suggests that a history of domination and exploitation – as evidenced by the film’s biting depictions of geologists and mining folk – is fated to breed depressive rage, morbid sexuality and a sad spiritual deadening. But this doesn’t mean that the film is any less sceptical in its consideration of Indigenous cultures and the philosophical alternatives that they might offer, most notably in the cheeky intercutting of Gulpilil’s kangaroo kill with the hackings of a white butcher. Bucking the notion of noble savagery, Walkabout equates the brutality of both to disarming effect, even if the boy seems to slay with more ‘soul’. And while the industrialised rhythms of Sydney are presented as somewhat other in the film’s opening moments, the bush is captured with uneasy awe, painted as a subtly alien frontier dripping with critters and indifferent beauty. This singular visual expressiveness, paired with an eschewing of literalism in both performance and narrative flow, is what elevates Walkabout to a place of myth and into the pantheon of essential cinema, Australian and otherwise.