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Sometimes, artists are too smart for their own good. Combining jagged experience of an unfamiliar world with deadpan horror, the situation in Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout excites the imagination and could overwhelm as a raw survival myth. That it does not, quite, paradoxically results from the very imagination and sophistication that makes its potential greatness possible.

An adolescent girl (Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother (Luc Roeg) are lost in the Outback after their father commits suicide by self-immolation. The boy does not know what has happened, while the girl struggles to put a good face on their situation. Just as they are running out of resources, they are rescued by a young aborigine (David Gulpilil) performing a ritual “walkabout” to mark his passage into manhood. Despite being unable to understand each other, the three get along until the aborigine performs what is presumably a mating dance for the girl and, when rejected, commits suicide.

Roeg’s Outback is so eye-popping that objections to the Rousseauian “noble savage” cliché and the white guilt underpinning it are, if not redeemed, at least kept at bay. Whether suppressing those objections is a good thing is a different matter, for Roeg repeatedly undermines the revelatory rapture of his images to make questionable sociological points in what feels like a self-abnegating tribute at the feet of those we should view as our spiritual betters.

Moving like a dancer with the Outback as his stage, Gulpilil dispatches animals with charm, grace and gruesome detail. His lithesome appeal obscures the fact that any motivation more complex than killing to survive would complicate the characterization of the aborigines as child-like innocents. (A scene in which a group of aborigines play in the burned-out wreckage of the father’s car is uncomfortably close to the patronizing racism of Hollywood at its worst.) Gulpili’s skill imparts an aura of unwarranted sanctity that has more to do with the filmmakers’ need for absolution than it does the aborigines.

For if the aborigines are better than “us,” the white Australians are grubbily familiar. A group of scientists in the Outback, for example, seem to be included only to reveal their lust and frustration. Where Gulpilil kills to eat, faceless white hunters do it for the sport. If the aborigine’s hunting is bloody to the point of nauseating, shots in a butcher’s shop remind us of our own sanitized slaughter. And so on.

In short, the hallucinatory imagery is never allowed to soak into our imagination as persuasively as it might. It has to be used for superbly executed, but not particularly insightful juxtapositions. While Roeg’s urban images are equally original in their way, they lack the brilliance and tactility of the Outback scenes and seem included only for facile contrasts that cheapen the material and make the technical skill suspect. At their best, the startlingly vivid images in Walkabout haunt and linger, only to be pulled down to the politically prosaic.