Australian filmmaker Peter Weir made this enigmatic movie as the follow-up to his first international success, the moody drama Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Whereas the earlier film was an imaginative riff on a real historical event, The Last Wave is pure fiction. Filled with dream sequences, jarring sound effects, perplexed characters, and unexplained phenomena, The Last Wave rides the same trippy groove as many of David Lynch’s movies. It’s telling that Weir shifted into more conventional storytelling after making The Last Wave, generating such intense dramas as The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) and Witness (1985); although those pictures integrate atmosphere just as strongly as the director’s early oddities, Weir clearly found his niche as dramatist, rather than as a fantasist.
Anyway, The Last Wave features a most unlikely leading man, tightly wound TV heartthrob Richard Chamberlain, as a Australian lawyer drawn into an odd criminal case at the same time the island nation is plagued by strange weather. And since the hero defends four Aboriginals, the storyline includes a heady dose of mysticism and premonition, as seen through the prism of the ongoing culture clash that’s inherent to the texture of post-Colonial Australia. Oh, and all of this is squished into the cinematic framework of a thriller—sort of—because The Last Wave exists somewhere on the loose continuum between drama and horror. When the story begins, several Aboriginals get into a brawl at a pub, ending in a death. David (Chamberlain), a tax lawyer who doesn’t normally handle criminal matters, is enlisted to represent the surviving Aboriginals, and this triggers a strange spiral in David’s orderly existence. In the course of investigating the crime—and attempting to understand the weird meteorological happenings plaguing Australia—David transitions from the comforting world of rational explanations to the frightening zone of metaphysical mysteries.
Weir, who co-wrote the picture with Tony Morphett and Petru Popsecu, paints himself into one narrative corner after another—and whether he actually extricates himself from these traps is a highly subjective matter. Clearly averse to providing tidy explanations, Weir generates a series of cryptic signifiers, often presenting long stretches of screen time without dialogue. Very soon into the movie’s running time, it becomes challenging to differentiate what’s “really” happening from what’s occurring inside the protagonist’s mind. Therefore, by the end of the movie, it’s tough to determine whether the narrative has reached a personal apocalypse or an actual apocalypse.
One wonders whether all of this would have been more effective with a defter actor in the leading role, because while Chamberlain valiantly simulates existential panic and general intensity, he fails to define David as a distinctive character. Conversely, Aboriginal actor David Gulpill (of Walkabout fame) brings an effective level of mystery to his performance as one of the accused men, since his character represents a native culture that white men like David will never fully understand. The Last Wave is an interesting ride, but the movie demands great patience on the part of the viewer. Growing steadily more opaque with each passing scene, the film dives deep into dark water and never looks back.
The Last Wave: FREAKY