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THE LAST WAVE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Richard Chamberlain, Olivia Hamnett, David Gulpilil, Nandjiwarra Amagula, Frederick Parslow
Director:  Peter Weir
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Stereo
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.77:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Peter Weir Interview
Length:  106 Minutes
Release Date:  December 4, 2001

“Isn’t man more important than the law?”

Film ***

Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, largely because it forces audiences to accept the fact that sometimes there are no explanations for the supernatural.  In his follow up (and his first movie to be exhibited in the United States) The Last Wave, he can’t quite repeat the formula.

The problem is, there are people in this movie who understand what’s going on, and while they don’t include the protagonist David Burton (Chamberlain), they are still there, and they make the picture’s deliberate stabs at ambiguity a little harder to accept.

The film is well crafted, beautifully photographed and thematically intriguing.  It suggests there are things we don’t understand that can affect our day to day lives.  It suggests that some of us are in tune with a more cosmic force, and some of us are not…even more, that some of us may have been once, and can be so again.  And like Picnic, it seems to suggest that outsiders (ie, the European settlers who urbanized Australia) can be swallowed up by what they don’t intuitively respect.

Burton is in one story, while the audience is in on something entirely different.  For him, it’s a mystery of what happened when a small group of city Aborigines apparently killed another outside a bar one night.  When he, as their assigned Legal Aid lawyer, questions the only vocal member of the group, Chris (Gulpilil), he is trying to piece together the events of that evening.

But Weir has shown us!  We were witnesses to the events as they unfolded, so we are instead trying to solve a different puzzle…namely, why.  David’s colleagues dismiss his insane notion that the men were involved in an ancient tribal execution…after all, no tribal Aborigines live in the city!  Or do they?

The story is accented by tones of the supernatural right off the bat…some school children playing cricket are interrupted by a horrendous sounding storm when there are no clouds in the sky.  Rain pours in torrents, and giant hailstones pummel their building.  The freak occurrence is explained as coming from a sudden drastic pressure drop. 

David and his family are also witnesses to the storm, and from that point on, David’s destiny seems consumed by images of water.  An overflowing tub leads bathwater cascading down his staircase.  The rains around him turn from drops to hail to eventual black rain.  The victim in his case was said to have died by drowning, with a small amount of water found in his lungs.

And his dreams are getting worse.  He is told by his stepfather (Parslow) that he had nightmares as a child, but David can’t remember them.  Now, he is haunted by visions of Chris, strange Aboriginal artifacts, and the presence of a tribal-like leader, Charlie (Amagula), who sometimes speaks, sometimes doesn’t, but appears to be watching his every move.

They beg him to drop the case, even though it would leave them defenseless in court.  But David is no longer governed by rational thought.  Whatever he’s begun, he must see through to the end, despite all the ominous foreboding.

The ending is something else altogether…I won’t give away any spoilers to first time viewers, but personally, I found it a little unsatisfying…at least, not in comparison with the film leading up to it.  It suggests, or confirms, depending on your point of view, that David himself was a part of the Aboriginal law and tradition that led him into the place he ended up.  But I don’t believe that the conclusion the picture hints at can be validated by all that came before.  It’s open to interpretation, as mentioned, but in this case, it feels like a cheat.  It seems like the movie is deliberately withholding information from us for the sake of being ambiguous.  Somebody definitely has an explanation…they’re just not telling us.

But most of the picture is stylish and entertaining, charged by Peter Weir’s sense of direction and Richard Chamberlain’s excellent performance, supported by David Gulpilil (whom you may remember from Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout).  It only falters at the end, where it is mistakenly assumed that less knowledge made the picture more frightening.  To confirm our worst fears in this case would have been the ultimate conclusion.

Video ***1/2

Criterion delivers another quality anamorphic transfer here…most of the picture is beautiful, with strong, natural colors and explicit detail and sharpness, down to the most minute of images.  In one or two darker scenes, one can detect a little wear on the print in the form of some discoloring or scratches here and there, but these are fleeting.  I noticed a mild amount of grain once or twice, but again, very faint, and possibly not even noteworthy unless you happen to be looking for it.  Overall, though, this DVD serves Peter Weir’s distinct visuals very well.

Audio ***1/2

This may be my first experience with a Criterion 5.1 remix of an older soundtrack, and the results are extremely impressive.  From the opening scene with the sudden storm, it’s clear that this is no timid mix.  All stages get into the action, with plenty of discreet rear channel usage and lots of bottom end sound from the .1 channel.  The dynamic range is wide and very satisfying, and dialogue and music are clear throughout.  This is what a remix SHOULD sound like!

Features **

The disc includes a trailer and a ten minute interview with Peter Weir, newly recorded in 2001 for this DVD release.

Summary:

The Last Wave is a good, if flawed, offering from director Peter Weir, who followed up Picnic at Hanging Rock with an attempt to uncover more mysteries of nature in his native Australia.  A few better choices near the end could have made this an equally memorable film…as it stands, it’s a worthy and intriguing effort, but not quite the masterpiece of Picnic.