The Last Wave
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Idiosyncratic yet determinedly mainstream, the career of director Peter Weir hardly gets the critical attention it deserves. An Australian, Weir has spent the majority of his career in Hollywood where he has consistently churned out high-quality commercial fare (Witness, The Truman Show). But his early work in his native Australia confers to him the status of artist. His Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) was one of the first films of the "new Australian cinema" of the 1970s. Weir would follow it up with another critical success, The Last Wave, which the Criterion Collection has recently released on DVD.

Though diverse, Weirís body of work feels almost thematically singular: modern man, and modern civilization for that matter, finds himself ill-equipped to deal with the forces of an insular but spiritually powerful subculture. In Dead Poets Society, perhaps Weirís most popular film, our sympathies lie with the subculture, that subterranean club of prep school boys. When civilization, in the form of parents and school administrators, threatens the subculture, itís a malicious and willful destruction, a persecution of the young by the old, of the weak by the strong. The two worlds, inside the school and outside the school, are distinct and wholly separate

In The Last Wave, Weir tells a murkier story in which worlds overlap each other and the supernatural collides with the mundane. Richard Chamberlain plays David Burton, a WASP-ish tax attorney whose middle-class life (a wife, two daughters, all of them blonde) would seem boring if it werenít for the fact that lately heís been having strange visions. At first, the visions all involve water: an overflowing bathtub; an entire section of downtown Sydney submerged by an ocean. Thereís also a hailstorm which comes out of a clear blue sky, sending broken glass flying everywhere. Davidís visions come and go without preface or explanation -- theyíre like sudden jolts waking him from his suburban reverie.

 
A sudden hailstorm hits a village in The Last Wave.
 

When David reluctantly agrees to defend a group of Aborigines accused of killing one of their own, his visions grow even more bizarre. One of the men, Chris Lee (played by David Gulpilil of Nicolas Roegís Walkabout), starts turning up in Davidís visions, and the two of them form a kind of antagonistic bond. David thinks Chris knows the reason behind it all -- the murder, the visions -- but Chris remains aloof. When David invites Chris to his home for dinner, much to the bewilderment of Davidís proper wife, Chris brings a guest, an elder Aboriginal man named Charlie. Charlie doesnít speak English but he takes a keen interest in several photos of Davidís great-grandfather for reasons revealed only at the movieís conclusion.

Charlie casts a pall over Davidís household. His wife (Olivia Hamnett) canít understand why David is so drawn to him. But David is possessed, it seems, by Charlieís intensity. As the legal proceedings fade in importance, David becomes caught up in the spiritual explanation for the murder. Is Charlie a tribal man? Was the murder a ritual tribal killing? The answer would seem to be no. Tribal people, weíre told, live in the wilderness, in the far north or west. Charlie (and Chris, too) lives in Sydney. According to Australian law, urban Aborigines are "no different from depressed whites." Or so we think. As Chamberlainís David delves, or sinks, deeper into Aboriginal culture, he discovers that nothing is what it seems, including his own identity.

Weir is adept at evoking normalcy teetering on the edge of who-knows-what. There are stretches in The Last Wave in which it feels as if everything is about to be revealed, but then Weir pulls back from the edge, leaving us to guess at the possibility of what was to come. In the end, The Last Wave isnít about whoís responsible for the murder, or even Davidís role in the cosmic scheme of things. The Last Wave, which was written by Weir, Tony Morphett, and Petru Popescu, is about the sheer enormity of the unknown. When David witnesses the titular final wave, we only see a close-up of his face, his expression paralyzed with fear. It is a face that has foreseen the apocalypse and must live with that horrible knowledge. If David represents white Australian sensibilities, then the movie sees western Australian civilization as a doomed culture. It is powerless against the larger supernatural forces at work, all of them unknowable, all of them unstoppable.

DVD cover artwork for The Last Wave.
[click photo for larger version]

In an interview, Weir revealed that he had no idea how to end his movie. Conversations during filming with the actor Nandiwarra Amagula, who plays Charlie and who is a real tribal leader, convinced Weir that a conventional "western" ending would not work. The ending he eventually came up with is both frustrating and perfect: nothing is resolved and yet thereís the feeling that anything else would be too simple. This interview is not included in the Criterionís DVD but another more recent one is. Weir also helped supervise this new digital transfer which includes a cleaned-up soundtrack.

A few critics have rightly described The Last Wave as "indescribable." What they mean is that the movie defies categorization, and it is a complement of the highest order. If at times the movie feels like itís being told by an outsider looking in, then Weir deserves credit for subverting this conventional storytelling perspective. The Western point of view quickly becomes that of the weaker race, the one that realizes much too late the imminence of its own destruction.

 


The Last Wave is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new digital transfer, enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The disc includes an interview with director Peter Weir and the original theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price: $29.95. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.