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Seen 25 years after its American premiere, Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout clearly reflects the era in which it was made. Yet it has held up a lot better than most anti-establishment movies from the early ’70s. Its images are still ravishing, and its editing still audacious. And if the film’s themes sometimes seem obvious today, that’s mostly because they’ve been borrowed by everyone from Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave) to Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves).
Made around the same time as
Performance, which he co-directed with Donald Cammell, Walkabout was Roeg’s first solo as a director, and it doesn’t fit neatly with his other films. Most of Roeg’s work features decadent adults; here the principal characters are innocent children. Many of his films take place in ominous shadows; this one unfolds in blazing sunlight. Yet the director’s signature can be read in the sumptuous compositions (previously a cinematographer, Roeg shot the film himself) and the thematically contrasting cuts (derived from his model, Alain Resnais).
Loosely adapted from James Vance Marshall’s novel, Walkabout was shot from a 14-page “script” by British agitprop playwright Edward Bond. Though framed by scenes of shattering violence, much of the film is bucolic, or at least seems so on the surface. Two unnamed children, a 14-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother, find themselves alone in the outback after the death of their father. (How their father dies is best left for the viewer to discover.) The girl (Jenny Agutter) takes charge with a fortitude worthy of the English school uniform she wears, leading her brother (Lucien John, Roeg’s son, who grew up to produce his father’s Two Deaths, which AFI showed last month) in what she hopes is the direction of civilization.
Food and water are scarce, but the girl insists on keeping up appearances. When they find a small oasis, the girl demands that her brother clean himself up. In an emblematic exchange, she tells him, “We don’t want people thinking we’re a couple of tramps.” “What people?” he pragmatically replies.
In fact, there is one other person in the vicinity, an aborigine (David Gumpilil, later seen in The Last Wave) doing his “walkabout,” a coming-of-age ritual requiring solitary survival in the outback. He rescues the two white kids, providing them with sustenance. (Roeg doesn’t evade the bloodiness of the aborigine’s hunting of lizards, rabbits, and wallabies, which is unblinkingly depicted.) The girl, more socialized, speaks to the aborigine as if he were a new servant who doesn’t quite understand how the household works. Using mime and universal symbols, her brother communicates more effectively.
While the two boys become friends of a sort, it’s the girl’s budding sexuality that beguiles the aborigine. (As it did Roeg, who includes a lengthy sequence of the 16-year-old Agutter swimming naked.) Ultimately, the aborigine presents the girl with his mating dance, and she characteristically ignores him. By then they’ve reached the white man’s territory, and psychically she’s already back in the confining, predictable world that Roeg efficiently evokes with shots of walls and the banal chatter from the kids’ portable radio. The girl tunes out the aborigine much as she does another man in the film’s epilogue.
This reissue of the long-unseeable Walkabout reinstates about five minutes that were cut from the original U.S. version. More important, however, is that it restores the wide-screen images of this largely imagistic film. Some of Roeg’s techniqueswhich include freeze-frames, backward footage, and wipes designed to simulate the turning of a pagenow seem gimmicky. But the quick cuts and loaded juxtapositions (especially in the surprisingly abstract opening scenes) remain edgy and fresh, and the scenes of the outback are exquisite. Roeg only filmed on hot sands once after this, for 1986’s desert-island anti-idyll, Castaway, but for this one remarkable film he made a mutually beneficial pact with nature.
The United States is hopelessly corrupt. The White House is populated by people who are unprincipled and murderous. And the only man who can discover the truth is a cop who doesn’t play by the rules. Can we go home now?
No, no, of course not. Murder at 1600 has to run the customary 110 minutes and include the expected gun battles, exploding cars, and hand-to-hand combat. D.C. homicide detective Harlan Regis (Wesley Snipes) must discover the identity of the real villain, strait-laced Secret Service agent Nina Chance (Diane Lane) must make some hard choices, and Regis’ partner Stengel (Dennis Miller) must deliver some Dennis Millerlike gags. These things take time.
Actually, the time that may be most problematic for director Dwight Little (Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home) is the indecent interval between the release of this preposterous thriller and that of the even more ridiculous Absolute Power. Both films imagine a Clintonlike president who may have killed an attractive young woman during or right after having sex with her.
Where Absolute Power showed how the woman died in its opening sequence, Murder at 1600 takes a more traditional approach, presenting and then rejecting a series of suspects: President Jack Neil (Ronny Cox), whose lack of military service is being held against him now that he’s reluctant to attack North Korea, which is holding hostage the crew of an American AWACS plane; his son Kyle, a known philanderer with a reputation for getting a little rough with his girlfriends; ornery White House security head Nick Spikings (Daniel Benzali); and conniving National Security Adviser Alvin Jordan (Alan Alda).
Wayne Beach and David Hodgin’s script offers no more insight into federal Washington than Independence Day’s did into the culture of the alien invaders. Still, the film looks a little more credible than Absolute Power, simply because large chunks of it were actually filmed here. The director intercuts Washington and Toronto locations smoothly, although there are occasional lapses: At one point, Chance escapes the White House through a window in a men’s room and finds herself in an alley next to a timeworn industrial structure. (Must be that old warehouse next to the Rose Garden.)
Neither the dubious locations nor the predictable direction are as egregious as Beach and Hodgin’s script, the first produced screenplay by two guys who clearly aspired to being utter hacks. (Hodgin died in 1995.) A perfunctory exercise in civic crankiness, the script imagines a Washington where crazed bureaucrats routinely propose to blow their brains out on Indiana Avenue and the Interstate Commerce Commission threatens to evict apartment-dwellers for a new garage. (Yes, the ICC has been shut down, but Murder at 1600’s brand of brainless cynicism is timeless.) Beach and Hodgin give the upright Regis lines like, “I’m a homicide cop in the homicide capital of the world” (OK, that was a few years ago too) and, “Washington is drowning in a sea of its own bullshit.”
Perhaps the most laughable moment comes when Chance runs from the White House, realizing that her integrity requires her to disobey her superiors. In the process, her hair comes free from its prim bun, and she wears it loose in the subsequent scenes. This cornball shorthand for female emancipation could only have been conceived by filmmakers who were completely unaware that they were drowning in a sea of their own bullshit.CP