in Criterion Month, Review

The Last Wave (1977)

Australian New Wave is a subgenre of film I’ve been interested in for awhile now. Though I’ve spent most of my time dipping my toes in the horrors of the outback, I’ve seen a few dramas and westerns too. Last year I watched one of Peter Weir’s first films Picnic at Hanging Rock. Weir arguably being the most successful Australian director to come out of the 70s apart from George Miller. Weir’s career in the states included a string of mainstream hollywood hits like Witness, Dead Poet’s Society and The Truman Show. Though if you look at his early films, you’ll find a far more brooding and contemplative filmmaker.

Last summer for Criterion Month I watched Picnic at Hanging Rock, a slow burn drama about a loss of innocence. His followup, The Last Wave is similar tonally but explores a different side of Australia. While Picnic showcased the mystery of Australia’s outback, The Last Wave explores the mystery of its people. The Last Wave is about a lawyer’s connection to a mysterious Aborigine man who may possess visions of the future.

The film opens with a string of freak rain storms hitting the east coast of Australia. It’s during one of these freak storms that an altercation between Aborigines at a Sydney bar leads to a man’s death. Though there is no evidence the man was murdered (his heart simply gave out) several of the Aborigine men are blamed for the murder. A lawyer named David (Richard Chamberlain) is hired to defend the men and forms a supernatural bond with one of them, Chris (played by legendary Aborigine actor Gulpilil).

What kind of supernatural bond are we talking? Well for one, David starts seeing visions of Chris before they’ve even met. He has dreams of Chris arriving outside of his home in a dense fog, as if he’s trying to warn him of something. The film does an interesting pivot where it becomes less about the crime these men committed and more about David’s visions and interactions with Chris. He starts to learn more about their culture and their connection to the land. He also learns that the freak rainstorms might be a sign of an impending apocalypse.

Weir’s concept behind the film was “What if someone with a very pragmatic approach to life experienced a premonition?” Which is a great concept. David considers himself a logical man but when he’s hit with these visions he becomes a total outsider. All he has are the Aborigines to connect with. And Chamberlain plays panicked well. I’m not entirely sold on his half-British/half-American accent (Chamberlain is American) but he’s still good. Even better is David Gulpilil (credited here as simply “Gulpilil”. The famed Aborigine was discovered by Nicholas Roeg and cast in one of the main roles in the classic 1971 survival film Walkabout. The Last Wave is another one of his early lead roles and he truly shines. He is charismatic and warm and carries a strong world weariness on camera.

Another highlight of the film is the rain. Like in my review of Stray Dog where I talked about the weather being a character, the same could be said for the rain in The Last Wave. Intense rain is used to highlight intense moments and carries with it a foreboding dread. At times the film feels like the buildup to a disaster movie but I think that’s the intention.

The Last Wave is light on plot. It feels very arthouse in its depiction of mysticism but with great performances and the natural beauty (and mystery) of Australia, it’s another valued entry into the Criterion Collection.