Peter Weir, 1977
Starring: Richard Chamberlain, Olivia Hamnett, David Gulpilil
David Burton, a lawyer, agrees to defend a group of city-living Aborigines in Sydney when they are convicted of murdering one of their friends. They explain that they didn’t kill him; he just died. That obviously won’t hold up in court, so David explores further and is disturbed by the fact that one of the Aborigines, Chris, appeared in David’s dreams before they met. Chris and one of his friends, a shaman named Charlie, begin to intrude on David’s domestic life. He begins having stranger and stranger dreams about water and menacing other worlds. He thinks that Chris and the group of Aborigines are part of a secret tribe and the death of their friend was part of tribal law. This defense doesn’t hold up in the city, but David continues to learn more about Aboriginal life and the Dreamtime, a separate world that overlaps with civilization. He comes to believe that signs from the Dreamtime indicate the impending apocalypse.
Also known as Black Rain, Peter Weir’s follow up to his masterpiece, Picnic at Hanging Rock, is another triumphant exploration of terror and dread in Australia. As with Picnic at Hanging Rock, this isn’t really a horror film. Both movies are immersed in dread, concerned with the horror of nature, and have more than a touch of the supernatural. And as with Weir’s former film, the ending may not satisfy viewers used to tidier, more linear filmmaking. The conclusion is ambiguous and the “last wave” that Burton pictures is not a literal sign of the apocalypse, but a figurative one; a symbol of the terror that comes from civilized humanity’s interactions with what it does not know and cannot understand.
There’s some great acting, particularly from David Gulpilil (who has been in everything from Walkabout to Crocodile Dundee) as Chris and Nanjiwarra Amagula as Charlie. I’ve always found Aboriginal culture fascinating and Weir clearly did too during the making of this film. There aren’t an abundance of ‘70s Australian films where Aborigines play central roles, so this is something of a rare treat. Amagula did not act in anything else; he was an Aboriginal clean leader and agreed to help Weir with the film. Apparently numerous changes were made to the script at his request, particularly in terms of the portrayal of Aborigines. He understandably refused to allow Weir to use real tribal symbols, but added an air of veracity, as well as disturbing mystery to the film. He’s truly one of the most fascinating Australian personalities ever captured on film.
The somewhat milquetoast Richard Chamberlain (The Thorn Birds) is enough of a mediocre, unthreatening personality to be truly effective as David. Though somewhat dull at first, his character is fascinating. In some ways, David is as far removed from conventional Australian society as the Aborigines are, due to his constant, unsettling dreams. There is a link between water, dreams, and the Aboriginal concept of the Dreamtime, something David is able to access through no conscious desire of his own. His connection with these forces pushes him further from family, career, and society, and closer toward the Dreaming. This also heightens the film’s sense of dread, suspense, and the uncanny, bringing the film to its inexorable, inexplicable conclusion.
The film opens with a scene of school children playing, but then they are terrified by a sudden, inexplicably hailstorm. These moments of a violent, unpredictable natural world, usually linked to water in some way, increase as the film continues. Flash storms, rain, dreams of water, and finally, a massive wave, tie society, Sydney, and David’s family life into this other world of intuition, inspiration, and chaos.
Moody, disorienting, and frustrating in a more visceral, less dreamy way than Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave is another triumph for talented director Peter Weir. In addition to Russell Boyd's eerie cinematography, and an effective use of mood and atmosphere, The Last Wave is another must-see Australian film that brushes up against the horror genre, but winds up being so much more.
The film comes highly recommended. As with Picnic at Hanging Rock, there’s a great Criterion release of the film, which is excellent. While I would say Picnic at Hanging Rock is somewhat a better film, The Last Wave is more intimate, personal, and oddly more real. It’s the story of a man’s interaction with his landscape, as if seeing it for the first time, and his rational understanding that there will always be things hovering somewhere out there on the edge, the wild, the untamable, the destructive.