Unfolding as if stuck within the confines of a waking dream, less than ten minutes into Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 film Walkabout, the very fabric of reality for two young siblings becomes fractured. Travelling just beyond the perimeter of their everyday Sydney home to the desert of the Outback for an ostensible picnic with their father, upon laying down a blanket and their snacks, the man still dressed in his suit from work begins shooting at his children from the car. “I’ve got to go now…we can’t waste time…we have got to go now, I have got to go now,” the father hauntingly cries to his children, as if an automated voice message stuck in a strange recess of time.
Shooting himself as he sets fire to his car, the children flee into the rocky hills of the Outback in search of safety, and the audience is given time to reflect on the feverish horror of the opening ten minutes. In the fractured, dreamlike presentation constructed by director Nicolas Roeg, it’s unclear whether the film’s violent introduction is to be taken as physical fact at all, or moreover the metaphorical display of something far more intricate.
Setting off on their journey of survival, the two siblings engage in a shared waking dream, navigating the barren landscape with a strange knowledge of where they must go. Reaching an unlikely oasis, the two siblings bathe in its wonder and camp out beneath its shade, engaging in strange, lyrical conversation. “Are we superheroes?’ the young boy asks, to which the older girl replies, “I don’t know. I hope so”, it’s a strange fantastical conversation discussed with genuine sincerity, eliciting a pure innocence from the two child characters.
As day turns to dusk, snakes slither across the bare branches of the oasis’ canopy, disturbing the siblings’ Garden of Eden hidden in the smallest corner of the barren desert. They awake in the morning and the small lake has dried, their survival is once again in peril, that is until the arrival of an Aboriginal boy engaging in a ritualistic ‘Walkabout’ in which he must live off the land for months on end. Becoming their guide and guardian across the Outback, the two siblings are initially apprehensive toward the boy who cannot speak English, before putting their trust in his knowledge and altogether engaging in acts of frivolity.
Swimming in a large majestic lake in the middle of the desert, the three children share cries of joy, frolicking in a heavenly illustration of a perpetual Eden. At this moment, they are enveloping in the pure innocence of their existence, bathing in a place and moment they may never return to, both physically and metaphorically. Ultimately Roeg’s film is a lyrical coming-of-age tale of two adolescents shedding the identity of their childhoods through the ritual of an aimless ‘Walkabout’ through the Outback.
Nicolas Roeg creates a cinematic puzzle made up of poetic visions and a non-linear narrative to form a dreamlike exploration through the perils of the adolescent transition. Speaking about the film’s legacy long after the release of Walkabout in 1971, the director notes that it is “a simple story about life and being alive, not covered with sophistry but addressing the most basic human themes; birth, death, mutability”. Though from its exterior, the film may suggest something far more enigmatic, Roeg’s words certainly emanate through the film, which, at its core is a beautiful, flowing journey through the subconscious of ever-changing adolescent minds, establishing a new future for Australian New Wave cinema.