Nicolas Roeg was not an Australian director, nor did he have much to do with Australia for the rest of his career. But, when he wished to explore the elusive mystery of human distance and find the frightful regions of human history and modernity in what would seem to be majestic from a distance, it is no surprise that he looked to Australia as his canvas. The always damaged mystery of the location is unspooled across the unforgiven lateral extension of a landscape leftover from history, stretching on forever into the regions of madness. Not knowing the history of the region, the fading crimson of the sun staring at the fleshy human form instills its own sweat and sickly grime on the viewer. The unforgiving chill of the forlorn landscape dotted with an abject tree or two every now and again gives off a wafting aroma of decay and empty space, selling the history of this location as an abstract space of eternal rupture, the kind ever-primed to refract social fissures and psychological shattering.
The location gives all then, but for those who know a little more going in, Australia’s history is analogous to the grim, embattled contortions of the American West where rugged brutality hid a relentless, creeping sorrow and the successes of the few were built on the corpses of the many. The location, here and for the next few decades, would serve a hurtful and disparaging locale for distilling historical woes into pure cinema, filtered into fading cinematography and disillusioned editing that told you all you needed to know about the history of the location. Many Australian films have used the basic principles of visual storytelling to disassemble and discharge the human spirit, from Walkabout’s 1971 fellow Wake in Fright (like Walkabout long lost to cult status until it was given new life in recent years) to George Miller’s The Road Warrior to more recent works like John Hillcoat’s The Proposition.
These films find in the lost regions of Australia a side-winding emptiness of cruel poetry where romantic cinematography was shot-through with anti-romantic pain and difficulty, simultaneously capturing the rugged, well-worn myth of the far-reaching landscape and critiquing the myth by reminding of the brutality which the lush myths cover up and rest on. In this case Roeg, making his film debut as a solo director, handles cinematography too, having spent a decade serving that role on other feature films. Over his years, he developed a counter-intuitive but deeply impressionistic and fulfilling understanding of color in his films (seen to greater effect in his still-to-come masterpiece, Don’t Look Now two years later). In the venomous regions of the Outback he finds a purgatory that could just as easily serve as bleak hell and romantic heaven, and he uses this contrasting space to create a tapestry of everything, both the hearty poetry and the horrid social dislocation, that Australia was built up on. He imbibes in the romantic myth of the West to curdle that myth, to expose it for the lie it represents, and to undercut us for believing that this harsh Outback, and by-proxy, the Western society that tried to tame it and only made it worse, is anything to romanticize.
Roeg uses the film to expose the lies of the nation and the imperialist disregard for aboriginal culture at a macro level, literalizing the depression and discrimination in the lonely sight of torn-down land with a single aboriginal child wandering and trying to make it on his own (his walkabout, a several month exploration of the land on his own, is a pathway to adulthood in his culture). But, if Roeg is distilling the inhumanity of the lie of civilization in his film, he is also telling a deeply personal, primal, elemental, even pre-societal story about children, communication, and age. He begins with two white children on a picnic in the Outback with their father. The children, unnamed but played by Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg, barely survive when their father pulls a gun on them mid-picnic and eventually shoots himself whilst setting their car on fire. The scene is bruising precisely because it is so suggestive and casual; there is something harshly unstated and inexorable about the way we never learn who the father is or why he planned these actions. They just happen as fact, and we have to deal with the harsh truth of them without explanation, without redemption, and without escape.
The children in their youth don’t understand the actions either; they are left reeling from the pure fact of the suicide’s existence, unable to logically define it or reason it out, and neither can we. Wandering around, soon enough they meet the aboriginal teenage male, also unnamed and played by David Gulpilil, and he and Agutter quickly develop an unspoken, difficult mutualism with each other that never once morphs into compassion. As with the father’s suicide, there is a nonchalant quality about the relationship, an unsparing indifference between the two as they exist around one another but largely refuse to bond. Specifically, although Agutter’s character knows the boy can help her survive, she never views him as anything other than an object. As the film sees it, although her father’s death gave these children a chance to grow up unbiased, she cannot break down her learned inequality. Having been thrown into a land where her society’s rules do not apply, we learn that it is not so much freeing as restrictive and imposed; the harshness of inequality and history exists all over the land, and they manifest in the people who occupy that land no matter what.
Roeg develops a disarmingly empty conception of time; we have no grasp of how long these three spend in the wilderness, for Roeg is not interested in helping us along with the leniency and efficiency of known time. We watch these three stagnantly. They walk but never go anywhere, because they can never truly bond and develop as people. None of the three learn anything; they don’t grow, nor is this a learning experience. It is a confrontational quagmire of society’s making that finds only pity in the ways of human kind, sympathizing with no one. Thus the nihilism, and Walkabout (as with Roeg’s magisterial Don’t Look Now) is a marker for how nihilistic Roeg was even in his early years. He doesn’t ask us to learn from characters, and he doesn’t ask his characters to learn; he simply drags them through the mud and watches, and dares us to watch too.
Snapshots of nature and its raw, unending glory cut through the film, breaking through these people and crippling and exposing their inability to understand or even to bother with one another. If Agutter is a civilized sack of self-superiority, the film does not turn Gulpili into a noble savage. In other words, if Roeg has harsh words for civilized society, he doesn’t wish to reclaim aboriginal culture. At some level, the two don’t even register as “civilized” and “aboriginal” but simply two elemental figures of different origins unable to even consider the nature of the other beyond their carnal qualities. Roeg’s work is not a rampaging take-down of civilized society so much as a whirlpool of untempered desolation and vacancy. It is, let us say, a pre-political film, or a post-political film, which innately makes it political and innately means that a society of Westerners will likely approach it with disdain for the aboriginal culture that the film refuses to speak up for or down to. Many viewers will likely sympathize with Agutter’s character and not Gulpili’s, imposing their own biases on Roeg’s vision, an imposition which Roeg admittedly invites in his lack of willingness to favor Gulpili over Agutter. In a world where two individuals are treated differently, trying to view them equally will almost always default to favoring the socially privileged one, and Roeg isn’t per-se interested in overcoming this fact.
If this makes Walkabout immoral, which it may be, it also reveals something amoral and uncaring about it, something desperate in its lack of respect for humanity and its frank artistic genius to convey a truly curdled worldview. It also makes it a work of its time, an art-house take on the still-coming amorality of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, minus the slashing. Because here, the slashing has been done for thousands of years of human history, and letting these characters wander and fail to connect is worse than killing them in Roeg’s mind. He’s probably right.