Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, which came out in 1971, uses the landscape of Australia to evoke a sense of horror, but one that’s not typical “horror film” horror. Rather, it’s the sort of existential fear that accompanies breakfast, lunch, and dinner: the horror of social isolation. The horror of the unknown. The horror of committing some vague sin. Vast Australia, for its presumed barrenness and aridity, is fertile ground for exploring mossy nooks of the white colonialist psyche.
In Walkabout, a man drives his two children to the outback [for another ill-fated picnic], then proceeds to shoot at them before setting his car on fire and shooting himself. The children take what supplies they can and set off in search of civilization. They find a watering hole that offers respite from the heat before it dries up overnight. Exhausted and dehydrated, their rescue comes in the form of an Aboriginal boy who shows them how to divine water from the ground. Now three in number, the little group sets off together, and over the coming days they happen upon signs of that elusive “civilization” before reaching an abandoned farmhouse. There, the improvised communication between the siblings and the Aboriginal boy lapses, and he hangs himself. The white children make their way to a small town and back to their life before.
Like Picnic, Walkabout is heralded for its cinematography and for the way it depicts Australia. Along the children’s journey with the boy, the outback pulses with life—animal life, plant life, finicky pools of water. It’s rich, varied, and, shockingly, hospitable to humanity. And yet, like the schoolgirls in Picnic at Hanging Rock who nearly faint in their corsets, the white children in Walkabout for some reason never entirely let go of their layers of school uniform. It’s as if they’re trying to protect themselves from impropriety, indecency, insubordination; in other words, threats to their distinctly English colonialist character.
For both Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout are, at their core, about Christian codes of conduct at the outskirts of the embrace of Mother England, about being “lost” and “found” in a spiritual sense as much as a physical one. The disappearance of Picnic’s schoolgirls has as much to do with where they disappeared as the fact that they disappeared at all, for that rock, that foreign formation, arouses a type of hopeless fear and anger in the white community that’s suffused with dread, being entirely unknown. Running directly parallel to that, though in the opposite direction, the white children in Walkabout trade the peripatetic joys they experience with their Aboriginal companion for the encumbrance of routine as soon as they have the chance to clean up, yoked as they are to notions of “purity” and domination over the land. In a so-called savage wasteland like Australia, Christianity provides the balm of psychological comfort and acts as a sort of social glue for the imperialists who washed up on shore.
Of course, that’s not to say that Roeg and Weir subscribe to that theology. Walkabout condemns the children’s supplication to a supposed moral authority; Picnic at Hanging Rock exposes its suppressive nature. These films criticize colonialism without ever getting heavy-handed or [ironically] preachy, and it’s up to the audience to reconcile the beauty of the films with the ugliness that they lay bare.