A desert town in Australia. Children play around the school during recess. The sun is out and the sky is cloudless. Suddenly the sound of thunder. A few kids look up to the sky, confused. Then a heavy downpour followed by a violent hailstorm.
In Sydney, the rains cause traffic jams. The strange occurrence in the desert town is reported as a quirk of nature. David Burton, a tax lawyer, returns to his suburban home outside the city. That night he is troubled by a dream in which he sees the apparition of a man. The malevolent weather continues for days. At one point the rain turns into a shower of black blobs.
David Burton is asked by a legal aid lawyer to take on a strange case involving the death of an aborigine. Five of his acquaintances have been charged with his murder. Is it a simple case of a drunken brawl or does it have something to do with tribal punishment for a grave offense? The four aborigines have little to say about the incident. Burton feels he is getting nowhere until he meets Chris, the fifth member of their circle. He happens to be the man who has appeared in two of the lawyer's dreams.
David and his wife Annie read up on the aborigine culture of their area. They learn about the central place of dreams in their tribal lore. When he invites Chris to his home for dinner, hoping to build a defense case on what he hears, David finds that he is the subject of an inquiry by Chris and his friend Charlie, an aborigine painter and sorcerer. They seem to think that David has the answer within his dreams to explain the strange goings-on in the weather. But is David capable of traveling further into the "dreamtime" to face more shocks and revelations?
Peter Weir's extraordinary film is a visually startling and totally engrossing meditation on the close connection between the mysteries of nature and the power of dreams. We have often been told of the importance of dreamtime in the religion of the American Indian. We have seen the same force at work in Carlos Castaneda's trilogy about Don Juan. Now the theme emerges from the Australian aborigine culture. Yet can we live in the presence of a mystery that consistently baffles reason and challenges our consensual vision of reality? The Last Wave is another in a series of works urging us to attempt the descent into the unconscious. And it does so with an aesthetic sureness that is both salutary and stunning. Russell Boyd's cinematography and Max Lemon's editing are absolutely brilliant. They snare us in a web that interweaves everyday happenings with the inexplicable in a totally convincing way.
Another central point made in this thriller is that we cannot break our ties with primitive beings and their understandings. Weir is not pitching the savage way of life in a revival of romanticism. Instead he would have us see that we have lost and must find again what they possess instinctively an ability to link the rhythms of nature to the imaginative powers of the unconscious. The ones who are really in trouble, the aborigines tell us, are those who have forgotten about the dream world.
Certainly a key to this film's success is the fine acting. Richard Chamberlain is very impressive as an establishment lawyer whose life is turned upside down and inside out by his dreams. Olivia Hamnett is good as his wife, a sensitive woman who just can't handle the sea of change that sweeps away her husband. But the two standout performances are by Gulpilil and Nanjiwarra Amagula as Chris and Charlie. They manage by body language alone to set before us the deep waters of primitive cultures.
In one of the film's most poignant scenes, David criticizes his stepfather, a minister: "Why didn't you tell me there were mysteries? You stood in that church and explained them away." During the latter part of this decade, we have seen swarms of seekers give up their quest for truth and turn instead to the satisfaction of resting in certainties. A few have remained interested in a religion whose essential mysteries serve as an impetus to spiritual growth. It is to this group that The Last Wave will speak. For the film is indirectly a very religious statement that is both a mind breaker and a soul shaker.