The Last Wave is a 1977 supernatural thriller, spooky art film from Australian director Peter Weir.
The movie opens with the first of many rain-related climatological oddities. Shortly thereafter, a group of Aborigines kills another Aborigine in Sydney, evidently because he has somehow betrayed them or stolen from them.
Apparently in Australia there are special legal provisions for certain Aborigines, sort of like Indians on a reservation. Some tiny percentage of Aborigines are recognized as having maintained their lifestyle, and their cultural, tribal institutions. When one of them commits a crime–I would think only a crime against each other–the courts cede jurisdiction to the tribe to deal with it internally.
But it is understood that those few, scattered, “tribal” Aborigines live out in the wild, a thousand miles or more from a major city on the coast like Sydney. So this crime is treated like a barroom brawl manslaughter in the ordinary courts.
However, ample reason is provided to the viewer to infer that these are rare urban tribal Aborigines who have somehow secretly maintained their mystical beliefs and practices in the middle of Sydney, and that the murder had something to do with their defending their culture against someone who was going to expose it or harm it in some way.
A white legal aid lawyer (Richard Chamberlain) is assigned to their case. They are for the most part not cooperative defendants; they don’t want to tell even their lawyer anything about the religious significance of the killing.
The lawyer becomes obsessed with the case and with the Aborigines. He is plagued by scary, bizarre, possibly prophetic dreams that they hint they know the meaning of.
For the bulk of the movie, there are many possibilities where this is going. Is the attorney some sort of messenger that the Aborigines have been awaiting, a positive figure to them? Is he a threat to them, someone they must stop from finding out too much? Are they tricking him into believing these things about his dreams, when in fact nothing supernatural is going on? How does it all tie in with the weird weather? Are there scenes that the movie seems to be presenting as happening in real time that he, or another character, is actually dreaming? Or vice versa?
The movie has a nice, eerie quality to it. The visuals–often slow, dreamy water and rain-based shots–and the bizarre background pulsations of music or sound effects, are well and carefully chosen.
The film mostly drew me into the mood it tries to create. Not completely. Maybe 75% of the time I let it carry me along and I was into it, and 25% of the time I experienced it as just slow and dull and my mind was wandering.
As the movie wound down, it was hovering on the border between thumbs up and thumbs down for me. A movie certainly loses points with me for presenting as true primitive magic-based religion, which this seemed to be doing, but otherwise it was decent. I liked the atmospherics, and I was moderately interested in the mysterious storyline. So how the ending of the movie resolved the various questions that had been raised was set up to be the tiebreaker in my assessment.
Then it ends with an incomprehensible, artsy muddle. I was able to take some educated guesses at very roughly what it might be depicting, plus I then cheated and spent a half hour online reading about the movie, but I still only got it to a very limited degree.
Not that there’s necessarily anything to “get.” The ambiguity of movies like this is generally intentional and essential. It’s not as if there’s something “really” there if you just look closely enough or think about it more. I don’t think, anyway.
I make no secret of the fact that I find obscurity for its own sake like that in a movie pretentious and unsatisfying. A lot of people–a certain type of intellectual, art critics, people who champion emotion or spirituality over reason, etc.–feel exactly the opposite and would say that this kind of lack of clarity is all to the good. To each his own.
This film does a lot of things well, and even the things that I don’t see as being all that good will appeal to many moviegoers. So I certainly am not saying it’s a bad movie, and I wouldn’t steer people away from it, as long as they understand what type of movie it is and that type appeals to them. But for me it’s a narrow thumbs down.