David Gulpilil is an actor, dancer and artist who grew up in the Outback, far away from the British influence in Australia. His performances in director Nicholas Roeg’s stunning film Walkabout and in Peter Weir’s magnificent Last Wave have the ring of authenticity and are breathtaking.
He was only 16 when he portrayed someone much like himself in a movie that powerfully conveys the stark similarity between so-called primitive and advanced cultures.
The story begins with a deranged father trying to shoot his daughter and son after taking them out to a remote, desolate area of Australia. The children manage to escape, but to what? The hot, unfriendly environment of Australia’s Outback. It’s unlikely the two young bourgeois children could survive long enough to find their way back to food, water and shelter. Along comes the young man, who has begun his rite of passage into adulthood by attempting to survive on his own in the wild. It is a tribal ritual called “walkabout.” Being much more equipped to survive in this environment, he takes responsibility for the lost children. Jenny Agutter is the coming of age girl. She is an extraordinary actress playing an extraordinary character. (Roeg apparently suffered some criticism — that he exploited her beauty by including extensive nude scenes.) It is incredible to me that the human mind would go there. This is what the film is about — humans stripped to their nakedness — in a dangerous Eden. And Lucien John is the young boy, young enough fortunately, to find the walkabout an adventure. And we believe him too. The film is about the three of them and all three are very much up to the task.
What Roeg has wrought here is much more than a story of survival. It is setting so-called civilization up against the more primitive lives of those who live closer to the earth. This isn’t romancing the simple life, though there are occasional glances of paradise amidst nature at its most brutal, which includes the graphic killing of prey in order to survive. If nothing else, it is shows that the life in high-rises and life out in the brush are in many ways very much the same. We are of the same blood. We have only created a little distance between the killing and the eating. And in some ways we have desensitized ourselves from the essential, though often unpleasant, truths of existence, including, paradoxically, the impossible gap between the two worlds, as much alike as they are.
The Last Wave is perhaps a little less visually powerful, but no less thought-provoking. An aboriginal man dies in Sydney. The police believe it is murder and a brief investigation leads to four men, one of them David Gulpilil, older now, but still mesmerizing. Richard Chamblerlain finds himself, through his association with a nonprofit defense association, to be their defense attorney — a difficult job at best.
Weir, who directed Picnic at Hanging Rock and Don’t Look Now, returns to themes that can be described as otherworldly in as much as one must accept a world of not necessarily complete rationality. In The Last Wave, there is a suggestion that a great natural calamity is about to take place and that, in order prevent it, Chamberlain’s character, must uncover the mystery at the heart of an aboriginal tribe’s “myth.” He can only do so — and incidentally free the four wrongly charged with homicide — by risking his sanity as well as his life and quite possibly the lives of everyone. Gulpilil plays one of the young men charged with murder and again he is the guide to the outback of the human psyche, a more reluctant guide this time. Again, Gulpilil is flawless and Chamberlain reminds us just how underrated an actor he has been during his career.
The question is what is real? Is rational thought the truth? What about dreams? Premonitions?
What both films have in common besides aborigines, though they are at the heart of them, is a larger question. What do we make of culture and how it shapes “the truth.” Of the two. Roeg’s film makes a statement and Weir’s poses a question.
Not sure what you should be drinking with this double feature. Walkabout takes place in a dessert. You could get heatstroke just watching it. So beer or a chilled wine. The Last Wave is interminably cold and wet. Water, water, everywhere. And caves and wind. Perhaps an Australian version of an Irish coffee or a House Cappuccino modeled after San Francisco’s Tosca house specialty, coffee, chocolate steamed milk and brandy.