Pauline Kael

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

Weir's occultism isn't even faintly erotic, and except for the first sequence The Last Wave is over-deliberate; the camera movements are ominous as if by habit.

Visually, the film is active until the first shot of [David Burton], a Sydney corporation lawyer. Every time he appears, the camera seems to hold on him—and the film croaks out. (p. 533)

Weir provides apparitions holding sacred stones, frog noises in the night, shadows in slow motion, and the kind of haunted-house acting that many of us have a certain affection for—the actors' sense of hopelessness is so disarming as they deliver a line and then try to find a suitable expression to go with it. But The Last Wave, which at its best recalls [Jacques Tourneur's] I Walked with a Zombie, is hokum without the fun of hokum. Despite all its scare-movie apparatus, the film fairly aches to be called profound…. This infernally sluggish movie is about the white man's burden of alienation….

The maudlin hysteria in the film links it to some of the Hollywood movies of the late-sixties-early-seventies period…. It's the kill-us-because-we-deserve-to-die syndrome. Instead of seeing the victims of expansionist drives and colonial policies—the aborigines or blacks or Indians—as people whose rights were violated and must be restored as quickly as possible, these movies romanticize the victims. They are seen in terms of what whites are supposed to have repressed. (p. 534)

It's implicit in The Last Wave that the crime against the aborigines is what alienated the whites from their dreams, and that because of this crime a Biblical flood is coming—punishment and purification. It doesn't seem to matter that the flood will flush away the aborigines as well. This film is so infatuated with white guilt that the aborigines are created in our lost self-image. (pp. 534-35)

Weir doesn't develop any characters, so if all the people are to be killed the viewer has no particular cause for regret. Or even for much interest, because the film has worn us out with all its forebodings. Weir has reversed the techniques needed for audience involvement. Instead of starting with the ordinary, getting us to care about the characters, and building to a hallucinatory climax, he uses his dislocating tricks right at the start, and keeps using them in the Sydney streets and rooms. Nobody in the lawyer's home can pick up a toothpick without the scene's being invested with dread. But when Weir gets to the mystic big number—the journey to the "sacred place," where the lawyer reënacts the whites' primal crime against the aborigines—he might be shooting a documentary of everyday events. He's prosaic just when he needs to be imaginative to pull the movie together. (pp. 535-36)

Pauline Kael, "Doused" (originally published in The New Yorker, Vol. LIV, No. 49, January 22, 1979), in her When the Lights Go Down (copyright © 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980 by Pauline Kael; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers), Holt, 1980, pp. 533-36.

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