Retro Review: ‘The Last Wave’

Cultural Note: The following review contain names and images of deceased Indigenous persons.

Director: Peter Weir

Cast: Richard Chamberlain, Olivia Hamnett, David Gulpilil, Fred Parslow, Vivean Gray

Plot: A Sydney lawyer is tasked with defending a group of Aboriginal men who have been accused of murder. He must delve into Aboriginal spirituality to understand what has taken place, and his new understanding conflicts with his role as a lawyer.

Review: Sometimes you go scrolling through a streaming service and something stands out to you. In this case it was an image of an Aboriginal Australian wearing tribal make-up right there in the middle of Shudder, the horror based streaming service. That piqued my curiosity enough to give it a click, as there’s only a limited number of movies that explore the Indigenous experience, and we were happy to find it’s an early work from Peter Weir. If the name is unfamiliar, the Australian director has produced some massive award winning hits including Gallipoli in 1981, Dead Poet’s Society in 1989 and The Truman Show in 1998. Prior to this his has a number of cult classic including The Cars That Ate Paris and Picnic at Hanging Rock and this number that we’d managed to miss.

Casting an American in the lead caucasian role provides context for the story, giving the audience an outsider perspective as he is now put in a position that challenges his own worldview. David Burton (Chamberlain) begins experiencing nightmares and hallucinations about water and an Aboriginal man appearing in his house. This coincides with his recruitment into a murder case involving a group of Aboriginal men that includes the man who appears in his visions. Chris Lee (Gulpilil) becomes Burton’s guide into Indigenous culture as the film explored spirituality, history and the social issues that still exist to this day.

For a movie that was produced in the 1970s, this is a respectful and engaging exploration of a culture that exists in the modern world, but few outsiders have a strong knowledge of, even within Australia. There’s not a great deal of scrutiny or explanation into how the spiritual aspects of the story work, rather conveying meaning through tone and context. Burton’s wife brings references a history book to compare the changes to Aboriginal culture and lifestyle pre- and post arrival of white people in Australian, and his colleagues reflect that Aborigines in the city are “no different than depressed whites – we destroyed their languages, their ceremonies…and their tribal law”.

It’s presented to the audience that the mythical aspects of tribal law exist and are valid. The dead man at the centre of the court case was apparently killed by a shaman using magical means. Whether this is ‘real’ or not doesn’t feel like an issue that is especially important to the film, but the acknowledgement of tribal law and how it interacts with federal law. It’s a complicated issue, all the more complicated for the surreal imagery that accompanies it.

Coming back to where we found this movie, being on Shudder may have given us a skewed set of expectations as it’s not a horror movie. It’s barely a thriller, only getting through for some of the dark images and tone. This is where Weir excels as a director, already having fine-tuned his ability to create surreal and dream-like visuals in the previous Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s a powerfully tense movie without resorting to gimmicks, just solid writing and performances. The motif of the water and flooding as a great atmosphere to the experience. It’s unlikely to have been a considered part of the themes, but the unusual weather conditions that tie into the tribes prophecies fit neatly into the contemporary discussions around climate change.

If you don’t know anything about Aboriginal mythicism, and want a modern story that incorporates these elements, this is your movie. The late David Gulpilil has been a presence onscreen for decades and is always worth attention. It may not grab you if you’re only used to the quicker pace of cinema the past twenty years, otherwise it holds up very well.

Rating: EIGHT out of TEN