Criterion // 1971 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Sean McGinnis (Retired) // September 18th, 1999
Just about the most different film you'll ever see.
Nicolas Roeg has crafted, in Walkabout, one of the most mysterious and thought provoking films I have ever seen. And it does it with less dialogue than a typical newsman's five minute interview, which makes the film all the more special.
Walkabout takes its name from an Aboriginal tribal ritual where a young boy, about to enter manhood, strikes out on a six month journey through the outback with little more than his wits and wisdom to allow his survival. But it is so much more that that. This film has layers upon layers and leaves nearly everything open to interpretation. Nicolas Roeg never determines to resolve much in this film, only to show us, through his looking glass, what transpires.
The film tells the tale of a small, nuclear Australian family, living the "good life," as it were, in Sydney. The father and his two children (a 16-year old daughter and a six-year old son) embark on a picnic one day. The father has flipped his proverbial lid and starts shooting at his children. He then starts his car afire and shoots himself in the head, leaving the children in the middle of the outback alone.
After several days of meandering through the outback alone, and surviving on what they took with them from the picnic, the children stumble across an oasis with a lone fruit bearing tree and a water hole. They gorge themselves and frolic about for the remainder of the day. When they awake the next day, the water hole has dried up and the fruit has been picked away by the other residents of the outback. They are alone and despondent -- hungry and thirsty. They awake to find an aboriginal boy on his walkabout and are finally able to communicate (through the son) that they are thirsty. The Aborigine shoves a reed into the ground and shows them how to access water. And they're off -- to follow him through his passage into manhood and survive another day.
After several days, and adventures, we see the children begin to acclimate to their surroundings. Eventually, we see a scene, recently restored, where the girl frolics about nude in a swimming hole, relishing her freedom. This is a stark contrast to a scene very early in the film where she is swimming in a pool next to her apartment (which is in turn next to the ocean) where she seems to be anything but enjoying herself. There is quite a bit more to the story, but I do not want to give anything away, not that there is a shocking ending or anything like that.
Perhaps the best thing about Walkabout is the ambiguity of the story. Is it an allegory for greater things? Does it hide some agenda or meaning we are meant to dig for? Or is it a simple story that happens to spark different interpretations?
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times says the film is about "[t]he mystery of communication" and is "pessimistic," suggesting we are all "captives of environment and programming." Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle suggests the film is a "meditation on the corruption of civilization and the terrifying purity of wilderness" and is a "stunning fable about the importance of respecting the earth." Joe Baltake of the Sacramento Bee calls the film a "coming-of-age fable" about "how we sometimes tend to refuse to understand ourselves, as well as others and how much we forfeit when we reject desire."
Wow! Pretty deep.
I agree with Joe Stone of The Ottawa Citizen when he says Walkabout ends with several themes touched on but never resolved. "This is a complete and circular movie that leaves the ends of its circles unconnected, and...we dwell for a long time on its message." Amen!
The acting here is first rate. Almost as if the players are not really acting at all. Which is apparently pretty much exactly the way it was scripted. Jenny Agutter (Logan's Run, An American Werewolf in London) plays the girl and does so with aplomb. She is absolutely terrific as a young woman who is coming into her own. David Gulpilil is an actual tribal Aborigine recruited by the director for the film, and his smile is absolutely infectious. He is spectacular. It is so much fun to watch him I wonder, even as I write this, what ever became of him. Luc Roeg, the director's son, plays the young boy and does a wonderful job.
The video on this disc is spectacular, except for a few scenes that are VERY darkly lit or smothered in shadow. There are so many wonderful shots of the outback; there is little doubt that Roeg got his training as a cinematographer. Beautifully framed, these shots are the glue that holds the story together. Glorious sunsets and sunrises, interesting angles, and more. There are a few high power zooms, which seem to fold in on themselves and look a bit dated, but overall the camera work here wears its age quite well. Interestingly, the film is presented in a 1.77:1 aspect ration, nearly a perfect 16x9 ratio. The colors are very well saturated and lines are crisp throughout. Blacks are very black and flesh tones seem quite correct. Overall a very nice presentation.
The audio is mono, which is a bit of a shame. Not because we miss all kinds of cool surround effects or anything, but rather because I would like to have John Barry's score blaring through my speakers right now as I write this. The score is beautiful and certainly reminiscent of his work in Out of Africa. As stated above, there is little dialogue in the film comparatively speaking, mostly attributable to the different languages spoken by the players.
I really have nothing bad to say about the film or the disc. As usual, I would have preferred more extras, but there are very few discs available where that is not the case. The disc does contain both long (three minutes) and short (30 seconds) theatrical trailers and a commentary track with director Roeg and Jenny Agutter. As usual, the commentary track is superior to those included by every other studio. I really wish they would take a cue from Criterion on this matter and do some production work on their commentary tracks. Criterion's way is SOOOOOooooo much better. Oh well, at least the disc comes in the usual Amaray keep case.
Walkabout certainly is an unusual film, but a very memorable one. I cannot wait to bring this one out for a re-viewing in a couple of months. I wonder what I'll bring to it then?
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary by Nicolas Roeg and Jenny Agutter
* Original Unedited Director's Cut
* Theatrical Trailers
* Essay By Roger Ebert