Because Walkabout is set in Australia, has a kind of mystical, symbolic, poetic feel to it, has a thin, confusing, and probably not fully coherent storyline, and emphasizes striking and lovely visuals, I assumed that it was a Peter Weir film. I’ve written about two Weir films so far—Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave—and this is quite similar.
But in fact it’s a film by Nicolas Roeg, who is not even Australian. My only previous experience with Roeg was The Man Who Fell to Earth. And yes, there are some similarities between this film and that one, but not as much as with the Weir film. Certainly Walkabout is not incomprehensible to anything like the degree that The Man Who Fell to Earth is.
In writing about Walkabout, I’ll tell a somewhat greater percentage of the story and ending than usual, so expect plenty of spoilers.
A father drives out into the Australian outback for a picnic with his teenage daughter and young son about half her age. He appears to be somewhat stressed over work-related things, but does not seem particularly angry or crazy. As the kids are setting up the picnic and he’s still sitting in the car, he takes out a gun and casually aims and fires at them. The boy seems not fully aware what’s happening, but the girl seems to know immediately and jumps into action to hustle the boy out of firing range. Neither acts all that panicky or surprised, almost like it’s not the first time this, or something like it, has happened.
The man makes only minimal effort to kill them, not even getting out of the car. When they scurry away unhurt, he commits suicide.
The girl cautiously returns to the car, sees what happened, again doesn’t look particularly surprised or affected much at all emotionally, goes back to her little brother, and tells him they’re going to walk for a while and their father will join them shortly. The boy maybe knows this is false, but barely questions it then or later, and like his sister seems to have little emotional reaction to what is happening. They set off walking, but not the way they came, which would make the most sense. Instead they seemingly walk in a random direction, presumably with the idea that they’re bound to come to something sooner or later.
Meanwhile an Aborigine teenage boy is about to start his “walkabout,” which is a coming-of-age ritual where he will have to live on his own in the wild for an extended period of time.
The girl and boy and the Aborigines cross paths. I would think the Aborigines would help the lost children, or the walkabout would have to be rescheduled due to the requirement that it be done alone, but instead the children end up kind of tagging along as the Aborigine teenage boy commences his walkabout.
They don’t speak each other’s language, and even with gesturing and such the communication is minimal. I don’t think he conveys to them that he’s taking them back to civilization, but they stick with him. Perhaps they assume that’s what he’s doing, or perhaps they aren’t feeling any great urgency to get back and are fine just going wherever he happens to be going. In any case, they show no fear of him or where he might be taking them.
Gradually they become friendlier with each other, cooking up the animals he kills and going swimming together and such.
Periodically throughout the film, brief scenes are interjected that have no clear connection with the main storyline, mostly having to do with some kind of scientific research team in the outback.
There are also frequent close up shots of animals and insects, generally eating each other and such, which are actually pretty cool visually, though I’m sure they’re not just supposed to be visually interesting but are intended to have symbolic import.
Late in the film, there is a scene of the Aborigine boy in a small town being accosted by a woman, whom he gives the brush off with a look of annoyance. There is also a scene where he looks with anguish on white hunters in a vehicle killing animals, perhaps disturbed because they are hunting in a brute force kind of way that takes all the sport out of it plus has no connection to a natural way of life where such meat is needed for subsistence. Where these scenes fit chronologically, how literal they should be taken, etc. is not clear.
In any case, by now the threesome does seem to at least be closer to civilization. The Aborigine boy leads them to a kind of abandoned shack, where they settle in for the time being. Whether that’s where he was taking them all along or they just stumbled on it, I don’t know.
Later he dons full garish makeup and costume and takes to dancing outside the window, looking all spooky and intense, waving branches around and such. For the first time since they met, the girl looks a little frightened of him, though she eventually calms down.
The scene shifts in such a way as to indicate by the changed conditions outside that considerable time has passed, and he is still out there dancing. By now, though, the girl and her brother have gotten used to it and are barely conscious of him anymore. In an unintentionally comic moment, the boy glances out the window, asks casually if he’s going to be dancing all night like that, and the girl shrugs off the question like “I guess so. I don’t know.” What had been briefly ominous has now become interminable and silly.
The next morning they discover the Aborigine boy has hanged himself. They show no more than minimal reaction to it, and continue on their way without him, soon coming to a little town of some kind, if the shack wasn’t already on the outskirts of it.
They knock on a door to ask for help, but with no urgency, not at all like you’d expect lost children in a strange town to do after being stuck in the wild for days and weeks and having had their father try to murder them and then kill himself. Their attitude is more like if they were a couple college kids hitchhiking around Australia or something, and were just curious if there might be a place to stay in this town.
The man who lives in the house can’t be bothered with them and angrily tells them to get off his property, sending them instead down the road to some kind of abandoned industrial site, where they explore and play amidst the relics of vehicles and machinery.
In the final scene, the movie flashes forward to the girl as a grown woman, now married to a very boring, white collar, conventional white guy. He’s talking to her about mundane things concerning his job, and she’s gazing off in the distance not listening to him, thinking about cavorting about the outback with her little brother and the Aborigine boy way back when.
This is one of those 10% or so of movies that I read quite a bit about online after seeing it, just to get a better sense of what the heck happened, what it’s supposed to mean, etc. Again, this is not as surreal and nonsensical as The Man Who Fell to Earth, but it’s one of those poetic, symbolic movies that I really struggle with.
It doesn’t help that due to the accents I could understand only maybe 40% of what the little boy says, and 80%-90% of what the other characters say. (And 0% of what the Aborigine boy says. His lines aren’t subtitled. The other two would not have been able to understand him, so we cannot either.)
One of the few things I thought I got apparently I didn’t, at least if one goes by what is posted online about this movie.
I thought the Aborigine boy killed himself because he realized his people’s land and way of life were being relentlessly encroached upon and slowly destroyed by the whites, that something like his walkabout was being reduced to a quaint ritual that would soon be given up as everyone was subsumed in the white culture.
But pretty much the unanimous verdict of everything I read online is that he was heartbroken about the girl, that his dance was an attempt to seduce or propose to her, and she either misunderstood it or understood it and rejected him. So he killed himself due to unrequited love.
I didn’t come across any plausible explanation of why the girl and her little brother showed so little emotion, at times when fear, panic, surprise, agitation, etc. would be expected, including in response to the two suicides that bracket the film.
It may be that the explanation is that within the confines of the story itself there is no explanation. Maybe the filmmaker wanted to depict certain things certain ways for extrinsic reasons of symbolism and such, and if it happened not to make sense psychologically in terms of what real people would do in those situations, too bad.
As I’ve mentioned many times in these movie essays, that doesn’t sit well with me. If you can work in your symbolic stuff and whatever else you want to include without hurting the story, fine. But those elements shouldn’t replace or compromise the story. The story should still be coherent, and it should still be possible to follow it.
Very big thumbs up by the way for the miniskirted Australian schoolgirl uniform. If the film had absolutely nothing else to recommend it, that and definitely the skinny dipping scene would still make it arguably worth seeing.
And that relates to an important element of the film, and one of the things discussed most in the material I read online about this movie after seeing it.
There was considerable huffing and puffing online over whether the filmmaker was out of line in focusing so much on the girl’s looks and including a nude scene, and certainly there was hearty condemnation of any viewer who dared to mention that she’s hot—the usual angry “kiddie porn!” and “sexual predator!” stuff. Evidently the actress was 18 or 19 when the movie came out, but probably about 16 when the bulk of it was filmed. So people were hastily consulting legal references for the Australian age of consent before deciding whether they were allowed to be attracted to her.
Which is all exceedingly silly as far as I’m concerned, but people certainly do get worked up over it.
The movie actually is quite blatant in highlighting sexuality and body parts. The camera routinely admires everything about the girl’s body, and shows other characters—including her own father—staring at her crotch and such. It’s almost as obsessed with the Aborigine boy’s body. The girl misses no opportunity to gaze at his ass or his crotch.
The consensus amongst the commentators I read was that the movie is using sexuality as one of the main contrasts between two worlds.
First there’s the “bad” way of looking at people sexually. An example of this is the unexplained scenes of the scientific researchers out in the wilderness. One member of the team is female, and the other members constantly sneak peaks at her cleavage and legs, with lascivious cartoon villain looks on their faces.
This is the objectionable, creepy, ogling sexuality of white people, grown-ups, industrialized cultures, males, etc. (The kind that I’m manifesting by enjoying watching the schoolgirl gliding along naked underwater, for instance. Shame on me.)
On the other hand there’s the “good” way of looking at people sexually. This is represented by the Aborigine teenage boy and the schoolgirl checking out each other’s bodies with appreciation in the outback.
This is the wholesome, innocent, natural curiosity of children, tribal people, non-industrialized cultures, people who haven’t lost their connection with nature, etc.
So when the children physically journey through the outback, they also journey spiritually or psychologically to a pure and natural state where you can do things like stare at a member of the opposite sex’s butt and it’s sweet and fun and innocent rather than predatory or depraved.
(Not just with sex, but in general. There are similar contrasts—with the Aborigine way always being superior—in other areas, for instance meat eating. The Aborigine boy kills animals with his bare hands and with simple, traditional weapons, and they eat what he kills. In juxtaposed scenes, a white butcher is shown indifferently chopping up meat of some animal that he never knew when it was alive and with whom he—and certainly his customers—never had any psychic connection.)
My problem with that kind of attitude about sex is always that I rebel against the notion that if I’m feeling exactly the same desire, the same aesthetic appreciation, the same wonder, etc. when I look at a hot chick today as I did when I was young and innocent or whatever, it should somehow be assessed differently. I shouldn’t be penalized for social context or for what other people do.
I actually think my attitude is surprisingly close to the attitude toward sexuality being applauded by the commentators, and presumably the filmmaker. When I find someone sexually attractive, it’s much more akin to a childlike fascination and borderline worshipful appreciation than to any kind of disdainful, objectifying, predatory, antagonistic, victimizing kind of thing.
But because of my age, my gender, the fact that I’m not a member of a “natural” culture that’s close to the earth, etc., my sexual attitudes and desires are classified with those of rapists and child molesters and guys whose respect for a woman is in inverse proportion to her willingness to have sex.
To me it’s a lot of bullshit and hot chicks are hot chicks. When the social costs are too high, I might refrain from doing and saying certain things that indicate that that’s my attitude, but it’s certainly not that I’ve accepted the argument that I’m in the wrong to think a teenage Australian schoolgirl in a miniskirt uniform is something extraordinary to behold.
This is one of those movies that only connected with me and kept me interested to a modest degree while I was watching it, but that I’m still glad I saw. It’s interestingly different from most movies, it has a lot of very good visuals, it has obviously been crafted with a great deal of thought and effort, it made me think and feel, and it inspired me to want to learn more about the film and what people thought of it.
On the surface I’d say Walkabout is below average due to being often dull, confusing, and unengaging, but because I respect its intangibles, I’d bump it up to somewhere around the middle of the films I’ve written about so far.