Posted by Greg Ferrara on February 6, 2013
The Last Wave is a secretive movie. I don’t mean to say, as the cliche goes, that it keeps its secrets closely guarded. I mean to say that The Last Wave doesn’t want you, the viewer, to know much of what its characters are doing. And that doesn’t mean it keeps information from you until it’s needed, like an Agatha Christie whodunnit. No, it means that characters speak in whispers that aren’t intended to be overheard, visions go unexplained and the meaning of the story – and the story itself – are largely left untouched by the movie. There is meaning here, and story, but the movie isn’t terribly concerned with providing them in any easily consumable way. It presents images and clues and hints at something bigger but what that something is goes unexplored. The end of the world? A reboot of the culture? The wild hallucinations of a lawyer going slowly insane? Who’s to say? Of this I’m certain: The Last Wave is one of Peter Weir’s best films.
The Last Wave approaches story telling in a way that’s rarely explored anymore. It gives hints as to character motivations, clues as to story and suggestions as to meaning but nothing is examined straight on. Things aren’t even suggested visually in a straightforward manner, making one wonder what exactly is going on at any given time during the course of the film. On the surface, the movie appears to be about a group of Aborigines who have killed another of their group for no clear reason and the lawyer who defends them. But that doesn’t help much. The court case is almost inconsequential to the story of the lawyer and his discovery that he is, perhaps, something more than he knows and that what is happening with the weather signals something far bigger than the rainy season.
The lawyer, David Burton, is played by Richard Chamberlain as a kind of harmless, bland white man, doing corporate tax work and happily existing with his wife and two girls, not concerned with the world at large or the Aboriginal world his civilization has infringed upon. But as the movie opens, that carefree existence is quickly being pulled away.
In the desert landscape, Aboriginal children play on the dusty streets as a nearby school is having its recess. A storm comes from nowhere and begins to shower down rain and then softball-sized hail forcing everyone to run for cover. In the city, the rain is a deluge and David soon finds water forcing its way into every aspect of his life. At home, eating dinner with his family, as the rain pours down outside, he notices waters trickling down the stairs which quickly becomes a small waterfall from the upstairs tub.
At night, David dreams of rain and ghostly men standing in the distance, obscured by shadow, speaking with him in whispers and mournful cries. In one dream a man appears inside his house, an Aborigine holding a sacred stone marked with blood. When David is called in to defend a group of Aborigines accused of murder, he realizes one of them, Chris (David Gulpilil, credited in the film as simply ‘Gulpilil) is the man he dreamed of. David isn’t sure why he’s been called on to defend them (he’s a tax lawyer) but suspects there’s a larger purpose behind it all.
The men’s crime involves the death of another Aborigine who died from drowning. He was chased out of a bar by the others and was later found dead. The scene in which he is “killed” is presented as strictly spiritual, with one man, the elder, holding out a death stick by which the person at which it is pointed will die from its curse. The coroner assumes the man was pushed into a small pool of water and held down but Burton believes something else happened, something to do with tribal customs.
His co-worker who is an expert of Aboriginal law tells him he’s crazy. Tribal law applies only to tribal Aborigines and these are city Aborigines. That is, they don’t subscribe to such things but David thinks they are tribal Aborigines living in the city. His co-worker leaves him to the case but not before telling him that his attitudes on Aborigines are condescending and offensive.
Later, Chris arrives to discuss the case and brings Charlie (Nandjiwarra Amagula), a mystic who will help David understand things a little better and by “things” I mean, “nothing at all about the case but instead about what is happening with the world.” Or something like that.
From there, David learns more about himself and what his purpose in all of this might be. His father tells him that when he was young, David had dreams about his mother’s death for a full month before she died and when she did, she died exactly as David’s dreams had foreshadowed. His dreams of rain and impending doom seem more urgent now as David tries to understand the connection between those dreams and the Aborigines. And the real world is becoming more like the dreams all the time. The heavy rains and hail storms give way to frogs dropping out of the cloud and deluges of mud and oil. And David’s “dreams” begin to appear during his waking hours when, behind the wheel of his car, he can clearly see the city under water, its inhabitants drowned under the force of a massive wave.
As we head into the climax, the court case is decided off-screen with no great fanfare, or any at all. That’s because the court case itself, not the crime that precipitated it, is beside the point of the movie, acting as a MacGuffin whose sole purpose is to get Chris and David together and provide a moment, under oath, where Chris has to tell David what he has been avoiding telling him from the beginning. And when David gets the information, and Charlie acts on it, the movie doesn’t shy away from its supernatural origins.
In 1977, Peter Weir was coming off the success of Picnic at Hanging Rock, the more famous of the two movies, and The Last Wave continued an exploration of Australian culture and the uneasy mix of the white and Aboriginal societies. One of the differences between the two is that The Last Wave does reveal its secrets, to a degree, and fully embraces its paranormal dimensions. It doesn’t pretend that any or all of this was happening in David’s mind but rather takes it at face value that, indeed, the characters are supernatural and the endgame of their dreamtime will soon be upon us.
More importantly, Weir inverted the cultural clash into an other-worldly struggle between gods and men and, as a result, created something intriguing beyond the plot mechanics of a murder story (when we find out why the man was killed, it is comes as a thunderous anti-climax). Perhaps the mysticism of the story was too much for audiences to take seriously or perhaps they really were hoping for a good, solid courtroom drama but whatever the case, The Last Wave didn’t have the same impact as Picnic at Hanging Rock and Weir went on to make straightforward dramas (and even a romantic comedy) for several years afterwards before taking a slight mystical turn one more time with Fearless. After viewing The Last Wave again, I cannot but hope that, one day, Weir will return to the Australian landscape and once again take us into the soul of Australia like few others can.
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