aka Black Rain

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Note: As this review discusses a film featuring Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal actors, we wish to inform any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers that this article contains the names and images of individuals who have died. No disrespect is intended. (Guidance taken from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.)


FEATURING: Richard Chamberlain, David Gulpilil, Nandjiwarra Amagula, Olivia Hamnett

PLOT: An Australian tax attorney takes defends a group of Aborigines accused of murder, and begins to recognize his dreams as apocalyptic visions; his clients confront him with his role in the coming cataclysm. 

Still from The Last Wave (1977)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: The Last Wave takes the already-mysterious and disorienting world of dreams and infuses them with Aboriginal mysticism, virtually guaranteeing dissociation and confusion in an audience which the filmmakers know will be predominantly made up of Western-thinking white people. If you find yourself struggling to understand what one man’s cryptic nightmares have to do with the historically unbalanced relationship between Australia’s native population and the Europeans who colonized the continent, then everything is going precisely according to plan.

COMMENTS: Peter Weir tells the story of a screening of his 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock, at which one prospective distributor reportedly threw his coffee cup at the screen in fury at having wasted two hours of his life on “a mystery without a goddamn solution!” The moment clearly stuck with Weir, and I suspect it was bouncing around in his mind as he began to conceive The Last Wave. It didn’t exactly persuade him to be more explicit about his intentions, but the film feels like it’s actually delving into the passions that fuel the rage over What Art Means.

Richard Chamberlain’s comfortable solicitor, David Burton, could very well be standing in for that cup-slinging critic. A white man in Australia, and a lawyer to boot, he is the very picture of upright, unquestioning conformity. With his wife, two kids, and backyard tennis court, he would seemingly have everything he could want in life. The last thing he needs are questions without answers. So all the strange dreams he’s been having about water, a mysterious Aboriginal man, and the end of the world are most unwelcome.

What follows is a chronicle of one man’s effort to provide an explanation for what seems inexplicable. He interprets the request to serve as counsel for a group of Aborigine defendants as a quest for a deeper truth. As David learns more about the cultural standards of the community that underlie the killing, he becomes increasingly determined to present the mystical elements as a solid defense. He instinctively knows he is expected to let these things go, but his desperate need for order and explanation override his sense of his place in the world.

In fairness, nature and events do seem to be conspiring to force David’s hand. Sydney is inundated with perpetual rainfall, spurring his visions of the city streets deep below the ocean’s surface. Water seeps into his life everywhere; even his  bathtub ours out into his own home. He seems to have tapped into the Dreamtime, the psychic realm that should be the exclusive province of Aboriginal peoples, but here David is. How else to explain Gulpilil’s charismatic Chris, the man who steps out of David’s dreams onto his front lawn and who hints at the logical explanation that David covets. It all must mean something… if only someone would tell David exactly what.

Chamberlain may not have a clue, but we’ve been given all the information we need: a mammoth tidal wave will submerge Sydney and possibly the whole world, and David has been enlisted as a prophet to bridge the gap between Aboriginal foresight and the white man’s trust. (It’s evocative in some ways of Don’t Look Now, another movie where the protagonist’s mysterious visions are actually tipping him off to trouble in the near future.) Of course, his brain isn’t wired to accept anything so metaphorical, so we watch him flounder about trying to reconcile the facts of the real world with the facts of his visions. The Last Wave‘s most essential piece of dialogue comes in a confrontation between David and his father, a pastor: “Why didn’t you tell me there were mysteries?” It feels on the nose, but it speaks directly to the mindset that everything should have an answer. A man of the cloth, David’s father protests that he deals chiefly in mysteries, but David quickly points out that those theological mysteries are presented with a digestible explanation. What he cannot abide is the inexplicable, which is why the finale is bitterly ironic. Like a version of the joke about God sending two boats and a plane to a flood victim, David can’t recognize divine intervention when it speaks to him directly.

Weir challenges the very notion of “answering all the questions” by providing exactly what is asked for. The catch is that you have to be of a mind to receive those answers when they are given. If you didn’t like the unanswered questions of Picnic at Hanging Rock, you almost certainly won’t like the very clear answers of The Last Wave any better. In fact, Weir’s journey through opaque visions and the vast gulf between European and Aborigine cultures show that answers are often in the eye of the beholder. 


“Peter Weir’s The Last Wave is an ambitiously conceived and dramatically executed film that combines a variety of genres–the psychological thriller, the courtroom drama, the disaster film, and the supernatural mystery–into a unique cinematic achievement. Its profound social and political implications are as unsettling as its buildup of suspense is subtle… The menace he depicts comes alive in the cryptic dream sequences as much through their dense, vaporous atmosphere as through their actual content.” Dan Yakir, Village Voice (contemporaneous)

(This series was nominated for review by Stephanie Cassandra. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

Where to watch The Last Wave


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