The Last Wave
(SPOILERS) Peter Weir’s perception- and reality-bending third feature may not hold quite the same level of foreboding or uncanny resonance as Picnic at Hanging Rock, but it is very much kindred. The Last Wave comes at a point when Weir’s cinematic explorations were neither bound nor fully-informed by the strictures of the traditional Hollywood narrative, at liberty to take his tales wherever he felt they needed to go.
In terms of premise, you might be forgiven for regarding The Last Wave as one part cautionary eco-parable and one part white man’s guilt espoused over the treatment of Australian Aboriginals. Certainly, Pauline Kael tore the picture apart over its perceived hand wringing. Her case is overstated, as was often the case with her vibrant and engrossing critiques, and she is unfairly dismissive of Weir’s main intent.
The opening finds a desert school deluged with enormous hailstones. It sets the scene for the torrential rain underpinning much of the picture. There is a sense throughout of the uncontrollable forces of nature rearing up and opposing the systems of order enforced upon it.
This feeds into the plot “proper”, as lawyer David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) takes the defence case of five Aboriginal men accused of murder. An additional man, Chris Lee (David Gulpilil) appears in David’s dreams prior to their meeting in the flesh. A process of awakening begins for the lawyer. He meets tribal elder Charlie (Nandjiwarra Amagula) and is informed that he is a Mulkurul, one of a race of spirits who “came from the rising sun, bringing sacred objects with them”. David becomes increasingly obsessed with understanding the strange dreams, signs, and portents he is experiencing, the possible prelude to a coming apocalypse.
Weir introduces us to a murder mystery, but this is something of a misdirection. It’s a means to immerse David in a hitherto hidden world, rather than an actual case that will be resolved with a satisfying conclusion. It springs open the themes of the picture, although only one of these forms its backbone.
It’s true that characters are given to statements of a perhaps overly didactic nature at certain points. There is discussion of how the accused, city dwellers, are cut off from tribal ways, and are no different to depressed whites; David’s colleague comments how the western influence has “destroyed languages ceremonies, songs, dances and tribal laws”. But David, who has ended up with the case for unknown reasons (“My field is corporate taxation”) wishes to pursue a tribal law defence. He is convinced this might get them off, as he sees more going on than an open and shut case of a pub fight where the victim (Billy) was knocked into a pool of water and drowned. His colleague, experienced with defending Aboriginal cases, objects to David’s stance, maligning him for being out of touch and making a fortune from tax dodgers. He singles out David’s “idealistic romantic crap about tribal people”.
Which sounds like one of Kael’s criticisms of Weir’s film. That Weir is conscious of this suggests she didn’t look too hard below the surface. That said, when David’s wife Annie (Olivia Hamnett) observes, “You know, I’m a fourth generation Australian. I’ve never met an Aboriginal before” one couldn’t accuse its director and his fellow screenwriters of subtlety.
There is also the danger of falling into a fanciful tour of Aboriginal mysticism when David visits museum curator Dr Whitburn (Vivean Gray, Mrs Mangel herself, who also appeared in Picnic at Hanging Rock) and receives a lesson in the dreamtime. She informs David that Aboriginals believe in “Two forms of time, two parallel streams of activity. One is the daily objective activity to which you and I are confined. The other is the infinite spiritual cycle called the dreamtime”. This is “more real than reality itself”.
This scene also serves to link David’s experiences to the strange weather activity we have seen. Dr Whitburn judges that white people are no longer capable of exercising spiritual perception, unable to experience the premonitory dreams that precede the end of a cycle (her language is framed as a believer, rather than a sceptical scholar).
Weir has a flair for the elements, and affinity with, and disconnection from, the natural world is a theme running through Witness, Master and Commander and right up to The Way Back. The Last Wave offers up (or rather, down) frogs, suggestive of the biblical plagues of Egypt, thunder in a cloudless sky, earthquakes, and the vision of a submerged city with a bodies floating by David’s windscreen.
Kael was all for the garish, hyper-stylised flourish of Brian de Palma, which may point towards the reasons for her resentment of credulous acceptance of the unknown and mysterious found in the work of Weir and Nicolas Roeg. It reads that she just simply didn’t respond to their fascinations, pronouncedly rejecting the idea that western culture has lost something important. As a result, she appears to work backwards in finding fault in the design of the films themselves; they are calculated or hokey. She rejects Roeg’s distinctive filmic language and the palpable sense of a universe limited by the established western paradigms; “maudlin hysteria” she scoff at The Last Wave.
However, the film most certainly does not “romanticise the victims”. Kael high-mindedly suggests “simple equality” as necessary, ignoring Weir’s intent. White man’s guilt is only a stepping-stone for the picture, not the focus. Weir is not simply venerating the Aboriginal experience as superior, he is exploring the idea that a way of seeing has been lost to the western consciousness. If Weir were merely romanticising, he would surely not have positioned the murder of a man by a noble and beautiful culture as his starting point. Weir commented in interviews of the period that his motivating force was the loss of a past, a culture, an identity. As he said “The loss of dreamtime on our side is much more interesting” a subject than that of white guilt.
David: We've lost our dreams. Then they come back and we don't know what they mean.
Kael is correct that the picture is about alienation, although she references the subject as if it is a dirty word. Moments she suggests are dreary are among its most enticing; David’s inability to perceive his own repressed abilities, that “Dream is a shadow of something real” reflect something greater on Weir’s mind than a simple (convenient?) use of Aboriginal insights as the key. His is a not dissimilar device to Roeg’s use of the blind psychic in Don’t Look Now.
Like Sutherland’s protagonist in that film, David has lost his sense of a fuller identity. His clergyman stepfather (Frederick Parslow) tells him of forgotten childhood incidents, how he was afraid to go to sleep at night ‘because when you go to sleep bad people come and steal your body” and how, when his father died, “for a whole month before you dreamt of it, and what you dreamt happened”. Weir is interested in the idea that our innate abilities are indoctrinated out of us by a society with but a single, rigid reality.
There’s certainly no room for anything as mutable as Aboriginal perception. David’s formative years were informed by fear of “witches, ghosts, the wind”, and Weir pays attention to David’s children playing, in a creative, as yet unconditioned, state. It can be no coincidence that, when one of his daughters sees Charlie outside, she refers to him as a “witch”. (Weir took on board the advice of Nanji, an actual clan leader, that Charlie could not be human. Rather, he is a spirit that who on human form; we see this most clearly during the trial scene, in which Chris sees Charlie sitting in public gallery. The fascinating interview with Weir gives some insight into what it was “to delve into the system of perception”.)
David: But surely men are more important than laws?
Chris: No. The law is more important than just men.
While David is ultimately undone (by intent or as a consequence of essential confusion is unclear) through breaking tribal law, Weir allows for an unresolved conflict between two realities. Billy dies, it seems, through Charlie’s curse, and Weir is content to leave a fundamental difference in ideology between David and Charlie (“For Christ’s sake, you killed a man”). The specifics of Charlie’s law and his justification for his actions are neither explicitly endorsed nor condemned.
David: Why did Billy die?
Chris: He saw things, took things, things he shouldn’t took.
David: Could I see them?
David: Why not?
Chris: Then you must die too.
What is evident is that David’s inability to process his sight (rather than insight) leads to his undoing. Whether that last shot is literal or another vision isn’t too important; David is now overwhelmed by a state of spiritual and mental disarray. It’s a common theme in ‘70s pictures, such as The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now, to depict a staunchly grounded protagonist who finds himself undone by old ways and systems he cannot process or countenance. It's an effective counterpoint to the more common hero's journey of becoming important, significant, special or chosen. David fails to pass the test.
David does exactly what he was told not to do when he descends to the ruins beneath Sydney; he attempts to leave with artefacts (including a face mask that implies he is indeed the reincarnation of the Mulkurul). Chris, who showed him there, explicitly says he broke his people’s law in revealing the place to David. Charlie materialises to stop David and, following an unseen affray, the latter emerges into a sewage outlet system, promptly losing his precious items.
He eventually emerges onto a beach, where he is, it seems, engulfed by a huge wave. If David’s motives are unclear (did he take the pieces as evidence of his story, simply because he felt the attachment to his prior existence, or perhaps because he thought he could use them to impede the oncoming apocalypse), it’s obvious his prompting has failed to elicit a full awakening. Whether the wave is death resulting from Charlie’s curse (Billy was drowned in a puddle, will David be drowned in a foot of sea water?) or the big event, presaged by environmental aberrations, has arrived is open to the viewer to interpret.
David: Who are you?
Charlie: Who are you?
It’s unclear where the rising sun referenced by Charlie lies; we assume it is earthbound, but Weir’s obliqueness and use of symbols allows for a variety of interpretations. Charlie is able to transform into an owl, which is frequently seen outside David’s window. Owls crop up in a variety of occult contexts, from masonic symbols to accounts of alien abductions, and it’s certainly curious that the books David flicks through relating to the sun god show images resembling popularised grey aliens.
Then there’s the suggestion of childhood abduction experiences, even if taxi drivers are to blame. Whether Weir was conscious of this or not is also unclear but, since this came at the zenith of Chariots of the Gods in the popular consciousness, it’s quite possible. Certainly, one line of interpretation of the alien phenomenon revolves around whether it is actually inter-dimensional (relating to perceptions of reality again) or indeed extra-terrestrial.
There are a couple of areas where I’d give Kael’s complaints a pass. One is the aforementioned dialogue, which is at times perfunctory. The other is the conclusion among the temple ruins. David’s descent underground is rather literal and overly grounding, coming as it does after a pervasive undermining of reality. Suddenly we’re in an Indiana Jones (or Allan Quatermain) set, as Weir addresses his lost spiritual life “with some logic, some realistic elements”. It’s clear what he was aiming for, but he can’t quite pull it off.
I wouldn’t go out of my way to praise Chamberlain here, but he’s effectively cast as a man at a loss. He’s a long way from Dr Kildare, and Weir is able to emphasise the alien-ness he saw in his face (significantly less so than the alien quality Roeg saw in Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, it must be said). Gulpilil and Amagula are tremendous presences.
The picture is as striking as one would expect, from regular Weir collaborator Russell Boyd, and Charles Wain’s synth score (his only credited feature work) is memorably atmospheric and unsettling. Which describes the picture as a whole. It’s been suggested The Last Wave’s is a horror film (not least by some of the more lurid advertising blurbs at the time) but, aside from the occasional shock moment dream sequence, it has different DNA. It’s only a horror movie to the extent that any movie pitching into the uncanny could be labelled one.
Weir’s starting point was “What if someone with a very pragmatic approach to life experienced a premonition?” The inquiry into perception and reality will continue into his Hollywood films, from Allie Fox’s madness in The Mosquito Coast, to Max Klein’s perceived imperviousness in Fearless, to the blissful ignorance of Truman Burbank in The Truman Show. If Weir has departed from an overt affinity for the “occult and mysterious” it should be noted he didn’t see it that way even then, viewing such elements as “merely natural”, a result of choosing to see the world a certain way. This awareness has remained with him throughout his subsequent career.