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Last Wave, The (1977)



Genre: Mystery Drama Thriller (Australia)

Starring: Richard Chamberlain (“Dr. Kildare”Shogun), David Gulpilil (The PropositionRabbit-Proof Fence)

Directed By: Peter Weir (GallipoliDead Poets Society)

Overview: As the weather turns wild, lawyer David Burton defends five aboriginals accused of murdering one of their own. As he explores their ancient tribal culture, they also teach David about his own power.

This paragraph is strictly for those who’ve seen the film, who never plan on seeing the film, or who don’t mind every hook, line and twister being ruined before they see it (you people are weird)...
Click here to skip the spoiler bit.

Part courtroom Drama, part Mystery Suspense Thriller, The Last Wave is deeply rooted in this real “White” skeptic’s world. Director Peter Weir hardly touches upon the metaphysical, holding himself back from going all-out Aboriginal-dream-magic. This was, surely for some, a blessing that saved the film from going all fantastical as the end neared, but it also held us back from fully exploring the character arc of a white, urban lawyer-turned-seer. When the film ended, it seemed like the end of the beginning - the cyclical nature of things, ironically, another theme in The Last Wave – as though this were only a prequel of things to come. Fortunately, that made the ending rewarding. Unfortunately the future this ending hinted at was the movie that I wanted to see. What I was shown instead was a lot of wordy explanations of concepts I understood easily and hoped Weir would run with by putting them into practice. Instead he kept talking about them. The film isn’t about tribal law and murder trials – at least it shouldn’t have been. That should-have-been-introductory plot is entirely secondary to the magic, the prophecy, the dream and mystical power this film is really about. The problem I had with The Last Wave was that Weir stuck to the more commercially-viable hook of the down-to-earth first act, staying there instead of exploring the arcane, the epic cataclysm about to take place – both on Earth and within David’s spirit. Excited about what The Last Wave should have been about, what The Last Wave clearly and predictably marched towards, it ended, without fantasy, without the otherworldly. The payoff - that great revealed mystery - is only hinted at, allowed to happen only in the audience’s own imagination. That is, it would have if the title hadn’t spoiled it for me before I ever pushed the PLAY button. I’ve never seen a movie that so desperately deserved a different title and a sequel – or at the very least, another forty minutes.
It really is better to talk occult over a nice dinner instead of in a vision quest.
It really is better to talk occult over a nice dinner instead of in a vision quest.

The Last Wave opens amidst a cloudless downpour with hail stones the size of fists. In the sewers, an aboriginal man is caught stealing artifacts. When he ends up dead, five aboriginals are accused of his murder. David Burton - a tax lawyer – takes the compelling case even though he has no experience. As weather events as freakish as a rain of frogs plagues Australia, David tries to get to the bottom of the case. Only one of the men, Chris Lee (David Gulpilil), will speak of that night. Reluctantly Chris divulges things in snippets, talking about tribal law, about dreams and asking David about his own tribal power. David is skeptical, but ever curious. He’s recently been having vivid, almost prophetic nightmares. His father (Frederick Parslow) tells him stories of David’s childhood, explaining that he was quite a dreamer back then, that he didn’t like going to sleep because, as the young David put it, “Taxi drivers on night shift stole people's bodies and took them on a long ride to another world and returned in the morning.” As the events of the case begin coming to light, so too does David’s exploration of his own spiritual power.

Water is an integral theme in The Last Wave, present in almost every scene, from innocuous moment where a detective runs his finger under a tap as he speaks to the coroner, to black rain and devastating storms that speak to a possible apocalyptic event, as the title hints. Mysticism and magic are the undercurrent of The Last Wave, but don’t draw us in enough to create an undertow. Though there are (maddeningly few) moments filled with prophetic insight, you who are seeking an occult-laden tale of magic, look elsewhere. Although there’s aboriginal lore and tribal culture seeping into the city of Sydney, into David’s life, affecting and lending credence to his vivid dreams, The Last Wave is more about the skeptic’s perspective of the supernatural than the mystic’s. Also, being Thriller before all else, it suffers from the affliction of the Thriller: a slow-burning, not-so-dramatic build-up where we wait for a payoff that doesn’t quite cut it for this critic. I immediately recognized Aussie Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil from The Proposition. His steely eyes speak volumes, though when he opens his mouth for the sake of plot, his acting slips into the dreamy realm of sloppy, over-the-top histrionics. Luckily, his awkward impassioned speeches number only two. This is easily forgiven when compared to the character of Charlie, played by real-life Aboriginal tribal magistrate Nandjiwarra Amagula. He’s a natural, haunting and obscure with piercing eyes. Unfortunately for us, he’s acted in nothing else.

For as little as The Last Wave impressed me, I will give it one big praise. In stories where visions of the future are present, we’re often led to an oft-already-envisioned end. The Last Wave does not take us down a clichéd road of repetitious fate, instead bringing us a last act that is at least - though too little too late for me - something original and inspired.

I just mean to say that a dude explaining dream-magic over macaroni just doesn't have the same effect, what?!
A dude explaining dream-magic over macaroni just doesn't have the same effect, what?! 

Performance: 7 Cinematography: 7 Script: 6 Plot: 6 Mood: 7

Overall Rating: 66% (Certainly MY Final Viewing)

One of my favorite reasons for being a part of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Club is in instances like these. Having others who recently watched and wrote on a club film, I’m able to look around and see what it was that didn’t click for me. I was expecting mostly opinions similar to mine and was surprised – though pleasantly - to see so many clubbers give praise to a film I found passably entertaining. Their reasons are solid, their posts a fine read, and I invite you to check them out.

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