Girl, showing resourcefulness by immediately recognizing their peril and shepherding her brother to safety, takes them both deeper into the bush. She’s going to walk to Adelaide but she has no idea what direction it is nor how to survive for very long in this alien landscape. “We’re British,” she protests. What’s saved her is how she recognizes how her father has become uncomfortable with her budding sexuality. It made her wary before the bullets flew. Roeg insinuates ourselves in Father’s attention, the surreptitious glances at bare legs and unconscious flashes of a girl, still largely unguarded in the company of her dad, only half-wise to the potential dangers of the company of all men. Roeg’s cinema is at a certain level, obsessively, illicitly erotic. Sex is simultaneously custom and instinct: the antic motion of the body fetishized by the interference of the mind. It is, in the act of it, the absence of artifice yet, in the anticipation of it before and the consideration of it after, larded with pretense and ritual. When Girl empties the car’s boot for the picnic at the beginning, Roeg invites us to look at her lasciviously and then shows the father looking out the windshield. He can’t see her from behind the hood, of course, but the way Roeg composes this series of images, we identify with his point of view and transpose our guilty interest into his. It feels bad, and for its impossibility, it feels weird, too. Better than a consideration of “Walkabout” as an idealization of Nature is an interpretation that sees it as a cautionary tale about what happens to an animal when it denies that it is one: of a shaved ape in clothes deluding itself so it can deny that its sober sentience is helpless before its hunger and intuition.
Roeg’s films are littered with men who deny their natures to their detriment. John, the architect/skeptic of “Don’t Look Now” who sees his own death just as he saw his daughter’s, but refuses to heed the visions that would save him because they are products of illogic; the sad alien of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” who forgets the thirst that brought him to this planet when stuffed full of the distractions and comforts the fruits of his desperation have bought him. In “Walkabout,” Girl and White Boy are going to die when they stumble, entirely by accident, upon an oasis; a watering hole where there couldn’t be one that Girl, in her delirium, tries to blink away so the hope of it doesn’t drive her mad. But, it’s real. They swim and drink and because she is what she believes she is, Girl washes her clothes and shoes but doesn’t fill a scavenged bottle with water nor fills their pockets with the red fruit from the tree shading them from the brutal sun. They sleep and wake to find the hole has dried, the fruit eaten by wildlife or half-rotten already at the mandibles of insects and in the heat of the day. The little boy asks why his sister hasn’t filled their bottle and as answer she looks at him blankly. In the book, the Aborigine boy has brought them to the watering hole, there is no lecherous father and suicide but a plane crash instead, and we know the boy has already been infected with a flu against which he has no natural defense. The book is a story of colonialism, a heroic tragedy in which a minority preserves white order. The film is no such thing.
The Aborigine boy does find them at the watering hole. We presume he is on a “walkabout,” an Aboriginal ritual outlined by a title card at film’s open detailing how, as part of a boy’s coming of age, he is sent into the Outback for six months to survive on his own. Not just a test of survival, I think, but a catalyst for self-discovery that is perhaps an analogue to the Native American “vision quest” or the Amish “rumspringa.” I wonder, though, if the real “walkabout” is the one the viewer takes during the course of this film as we are invited to be the voyeur in what we hope is the deflowering of a beautiful young woman at the hands of a beautiful young man. (Especially as the studio inserted the definition at the beginning and not Roeg.) Roeg drowns us in romantic sickness the way the netted ortolans are drowned in cognac in the preparation Girl and White Boy’s distracted mother (reduced to function and credited as Father’s Wife, Hilary Bamberger) listens to on the radio in their apartment back in the city. The birds are kept in the dark and tricked into gorging themselves on grain to twice their natural size. Drowned in alcohol, they’re roasted and eaten feet-first save the beak which is used as a handle. And so the audience for Roeg’s films are pushed into the metaphorical dark, fed to overful while defenses are defeated, then drowned in sweet nepenthe to cushion our consumptive fates, returned to the food chain as soil and cautionary grist for metaphorical mills. The first time we see Girl, she’s repeating vowel sounds in a group with her classmates as Roeg inserts noises of industrial machinery beneath them. Her gasping mouth reminds me of a bird eating… or drowning.