The Aborigine boy stands like a slim shadow against the sun-baked Outback. He plants his feet firmly in the dirt, rears back a hand, fingers wrapped around a crudely sharpened spear. The first strike tears a hole in the kangaroo’s shoulder. The wounded beast sprints for cover among a density of brush. On the other side, the Aborigine, smiling, prepares to deliver the death blow.
Although Walkabout is fiction, the scene is real. The kangaroo is really and truly mortally wounded, and about to meet its maker. That was when I hit the stop button on my remote. Of course, this was after being subjected to a barrage of revolting images, such as: a young boy, in glorious close-up, licking salt from his older sister’s palm, his tongue snaking and darting; the same boy, again in close-up, slobbering all over a wild berry; the Aborigine violently slaughtering a lizard, which is then hung with other dead lizards from his make-shift belt like a trio of sausages in a butcher’s window; wonderful snapshots of the Aborigine’s hand clinging to bloody ribbons of kangaroo meat. And all of that came after a seemingly endless and tiresome parade of shots of sweltering outback, rock, silt, and every creepy-crawly creature in the desert.
Did I mention that the young boy and his sister become stranded after their father tries to kill them with a gun, sets the family car on fire, and then shoots himself in the head? That’s how they come to meet the Aborigine, after spending several days barely surviving the harsh Outback conditions. Unable to communicate, the boy makes a series of desperate hand gestures to indicate that they need water. The Aborigine understands, plunges a hollow reed into the sand, and brings up water. They form a bond and set off across the desert, hand in hand. Fine.
Look, I’ve already said I stopped the movie early. In fact, I only made it thirty minutes before the absurdity of the situation got the better of me. So this isn’t a review (which wouldn’t be fair); it’s a collection of my thoughts: What I saw of Walkabout was a tragic mess, made all the worse by the fact that the film is considered a “classic” and a “masterpiece” by the cinema literati (among them Roger Ebert, my mentor and hero). Director Nicolas Roeg turned me off so thoroughly with images that fell on me with all the subtlety of an anvil to the head, that I had no interest in seeing the movie through. He intercuts shots of Adelaide–built on steel and mortar and glass–with the vastness of the Outback, and I’ll admit that the cinematography is wondrous. And perhaps the bond formed between creatures of the city and those of wild–their existence and means of survival as disparate as summer and winter–could have been genuinely touching. But the heavy-handed allusions and grotesque images just didn’t work, driving me to throw my hands in the air and give up. An unfortunate failure.
1971; starring Jenny Agutter, Luc Roeg; directed by Nicolas Roeg; 100 min; R; in English; available on Criterion.