The Last Wave
By Sam Sutherland
Nominally a supernatural thriller, Peter Weir's third feature resonates
with the director's underlying fascination with the collision between the
modern, rational world and the primordial mysteries of older belief
systems. In The Last Wave, the keys to an enigmatic murder, as well
as baffling disturbances in the weather, are gradually revealed to an
Australian lawyer (Richard Chamberlain) within the shadowy, nomadic
culture of aborigines living in and around Sydney who until now were
presumed to be assimilated into its modern--and white--social fabric. In
the process, Weir brings us toward an apocalyptic climax that is
foreshadowed with a haunting series of events that cohere around water
imagery, from an improbable drowning on dry land to downpours from
cloudless skies, sudden hailstorms on the sere Australian land, and
ghostly invasions of frogs.
The film's power (as well as what skeptics might regard as its
pretension) emanates from Weir's stately, deliberate pace. Violating most
of the conventions of suspense, he unravels his mystery with an unsettling
calm underscored by its sparse soundtrack, which replaces conventional
orchestral cues with the low, brooding rattle and hum of the didgeridoo.
Instead of sudden camera movements or quick cuts, Weir circles his
subjects almost diffidently. The stillness of that approach only amplifies
the mounting unease Chamberlain's character, David Burton, feels as he
steps for the first time beyond the bland safety of his privileged life
and into the mystical world of the native Australians. Taking on the
defense of the aborigines suspected of murdering the drowned man through
tribal magic, his own beliefs are tested by the suspects' evident,
intuitive connections to nature.
Chamberlain's Anglicized performance seems fussy and epicene, which
only heightens the quiet intensity and watchful grace conveyed by the two
aborigines, Chris Lee (David Gulpilil) and the shaman, Charlie (Nandjiwarra
Amagula), who give Burton his first glimpse of their culture's
"dreamtime" and the potent symbolism it contains.