"We’re whoever we want to be" – Kev (Hugo Weaving)
The tagline for Last Ride asks: “are some bonds meant to be broken?” What becomes clear over the course of Glendyn Ivin’s visually eloquent coming-of-age drama is that his answer to this question is an unequivocal yes. However, while our arrival at this destination is inevitable, by the end of his film we recognise that regardless of necessity, it is no less difficult and heartbreaking when the time to break such bonds comes.
Based on Denise Young’s book of the same name Last Ride tells the story of 10-year-old Chook (Tom Russell) and his father Kev (Hugo Weaving) who are on the run from what we don’t know exactly. Abandoning their car and taking a bus to some small town they visit Maryanne (Anita Hegh), an old girlfriend of Kev, who is neatly used to deliver some breadcrumbs about the father and son’s backstory. Ivin uses several cues (mostly in the form of flashbacks that are a distraction) over the course of the film to feed absent pieces of the puzzle: why are they on the run?
In the end the ‘why’ isn’t really what’s important, it might be what sets Kev and Chook’s roadtrip in motion, but Last Ride is only a mystery in a superficial fashion and weakest when caught dwelling in circumstance as a narrative trick. What really matters is the relationship between a man ill-suited for fatherhood – left to carry the can when the mother of his child took a permanent leave of absence – and his son.
There are other questions specifically in regard to Kev given added dimension by the ‘why’ reveal. Weaving is formidable as the charming ex-con who struggles to control his temper; his relationship with Chook may appear simplistic at times yet it is anything but. It might even be that Chook has some understanding of this, that no matter how wrong relations between kin seem to those on the outside, on the inside there is part-acceptance, part-normalcy and also a large element of intrinsic (misplaced?) empathy.
Flawed though these relationships may be, the old adage of blood running thicker than water exists for a reason. It is worth noting then the most dramatic moment of fracture between Chook and his father takes place on the endless Lake Gairdner, a body of water shallow enough to be crossed by car or on foot, where the horizon the ceases to end. It is a moment of absolute loss and rebirth, where the umbilical connection is severed and Chook must find the strength to become his own man in-spite of his years.
And whilst many of the traditional on-the-road imagery is executed in checklist fashion, silhouettes and sunsets, campfires stories, rocky roads to nowhere, static wide-angle long shots of the cars crossing the landscape, it is in the Lake Gaidner sequence that Ivin finds a truly ethereal moment of cinematic beauty. His technique, whilst confident throughout, at times feels perfunctory and unambitious – then again it provides a style that allows the actors to do the heavy lifting and characters to unfold with a naturalism that only gets stronger as the film progresses.
Weaving’s Kev is barely sympathetic. His love for his son is unconditional and there are moments of tenderness and honesty that suggest in a different world, one that had been less cruel, things could have been very different. Questions of masculinity and paternal complexities always simmer beneath the surface for Kev, a product of the perception that he was an “inconvenience” to his own father. Then there is the time he spent in jail that has left him physically scarred but perhaps emotionally too (“[in prison] people take advantage of ya”). There’s little doubting that Kev is damaged goods himself, but the extremes to which he exercises his tough love go beyond any acceptable limits.
The things that define us can all too often become scapegoats for lives we never intended to choose. Ivin’s film is a reminder that it is possible to step outside the shadow of your father and forge your own path in life, refusing in the process to accept what has gone before as a circle to be repeated in the future. In the same breath it remains possible to learn from even the meanest of fathers, as Ivin’s final shot rather cumbersomely punctuates, the question is instead how can we incorporate those lessons into our own independent identity.
The film’s ultimate destination proves rewarding and undeniably affecting in what might come to be remembered as Australia’s other road movie of 2009 (the other being Samson & Delilah). There are moments of profound beauty to be found in Last Ride, which may not quite reach true greatness, but is an Australian film that sets the bar far higher than most. At various turns powerful, endearing, disturbing and compassionate, Ivin’s debut feature is an impressive balancing act to be sure and a journey well worth taking.