Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Last Wave (1977)

Directed by: Peter Weir

Written by: Tony Morphett, Petru Popescu, Peter Weir

Starring: Richard Chamberlain, David Gulpilil

Color, 106 Minutes

Grade: A-

In the mid 1970's through the early '80's, a small group of filmmakers would emerge from Down Under to create a sort of Australian New Wave. This group consisted of directors like George Miller (Mad Max)and Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career), and actors such as Judy Davis, Mel Gibson, and Nicole Kidman. All would go on to careers in Hollywood, but it was Peter Weir who paved the way. After stunning audiences with 1975's Picnic at Hanging Rock, Weir went on to create one of the most unique and consistent pedigrees of any active filmmaker. His films include Gallipoli, Witness, The Mosquito Coast, The Truman Show, and Master and Commander, but it was in his early work that he proved his worth. The Last Wave was released in 1977, and it is further confirmation of not only Weir's genius, but of how undervalued and overlooked his work has become.

David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) is a young lawyer in Sydney who specializes in corporate taxation. He is fairly successful, living an upper middle class existence with his wife and two young daughters. Lately he has been having trouble sleeping due to wicked dreams about a man standing outside his window. Late one Sunday afternoon, Burton gets a call asking him to defend a group of Aborigines accused of murdering one of their own. He meets with the defendants, only to find them silent and uncooperative. He is intrigued nonetheless, and invites one of the Aborigines named Chris (David Gulpilil) over for dinner. Realizing that Chris is the man from his dreams, Burton begins to suspect something supernatural at work. On top of all this, the city of Sydney is experiencing strange weather patterns with large hail, mud, and black rain falling from the sky at seemingly random times. Both Burton's dreams and Sydney's weather intensify as the weeks go on, driving the film to a haunting, apocalyptic conclusion.

As with all of Weir's films, there is more here than meets the eye. The film works well as a thriller, but it's the clash between two completely different cultures that is the heart of the film. Very few films have accurately portrayed Aboriginal life, Nicolas Roeg's brilliant Walkabout (also starring Gulpilil) is the exception, and Weir manages to show us a deeply fascinating world which we can probably never fully understand. The interaction between Chamberlain and Gulpilil adds to this by showing us a determined man who is struggling to get to the bottom of things, only to find that some mysteries are better left unsolved.

In Picnic at Hanging Rock, Weir and his gifted cinematographer Russel Boyd played tricks with our minds, making us see images in the faces of the rocks and cliffs where four girls mysteriously disappeared. Here, they give us frightening, almost surreal images of water that build enormous tension. A bathtub overflows, forcing water to drip down a staircase, water flows from a car radio, water even rushes down the walls of a house. With all of this craziness going on, Chamberlain gives a surprisingly effective performance since his character is as confused and scared as the audience. The eclectic score by Charles Wain heightens the hypnotic effect with some very strange sounds, most of which come from a didgeridoo.

This is a very odd movie that combines genres of thriller, disaster movie, detective story, horror film, and even adds a hint of a fish out of water tale. The film can be somewhat confusing at times, not to mention dated, but it stands tall as a completely unique vision of the Apocalypse. It fits well into Weir's oeuvre, since most of his films have to do with an individual's conflict with outside cultures and the forces of nature. This is a haunting, almost lyrical film that provides more evidence to support Weir's talent and singular vision. It is available on a great DVD released by the Criterion Collection (who also put out Hanging Rock), and it is definitely worth a look, maybe even two.

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