THE title sounds like a western and, in a sense, it is. An outlaw and his son ride into the desert, fleeing the law. Except that it’s our desert and they are in a series of stolen cars in the present.
The movie evokes a lot of other films and genres as well: the road movie with a European sensibility, as in Paris, Texas, for example. Last Ride has a similar sense of space and silence around the characters and a deep sense of sorrow. It also has Hugo Weaving as an outcast, trying to bond with his son, played by Tom Russell, which gives a distant echo of the subplot of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert.
It’s a trial in the desert, that biblical idea that turns up so often in Australian cinema – Wake In Fright, Walkabout, Wolf Creek – although this one has a less alien outlook. The father and son have a family connection to one of the Afghans who married an Aboriginal woman in central Australia a century earlier, so they’re less like strangers than in those other movies. In fact, the man is taking the boy to learn about the bush and survival, in the places he himself learned.
Despite these ghosts of other films, director Glendyn Ivin (making his feature debut) manages to make it look new, or at least different, through careful use of location and light. This is one of the most beautiful-looking Australian films in several years, with a burnished, shining clarity of light that’s so good that it almost becomes distracting. That’s not a criticism of Greig Fraser’s superb cinematography. The director has taken a calculated risk in the first half, holding the pace steady, verging on slow, so that the climax will be more powerful. I’d say the gamble doesn’t quite come off: about midway through, I was conscious that the landscape had become more rewarding and dramatic than the characters. The second half regains the momentum but it adds to the film’s sense of craftiness. When a film looks too good or too deliberate, it can damage the spontaneity. We know it isn’t but we feel it is. Last Ride takes time to reach that level of transcendent reality, rather than offering it from the start.
It’s based on a novel by Sydney writer Denise Young – a bruising story about a violent man trying to hold on to the last bit of innocence he has left, the son he wants to protect. The novel begins with the immediate aftermath of a crime, as Kev and the 10-year-old Chook flee a property near Sofala, NSW, in a stolen car.
The movie, adapted by Mac Gudgeon, delays our knowledge of that event to build a sense of mystery – who are these people and what are they running from? It also shifts the location further west. Most of the book was set around Broken Hill: the movie suggests they are fleeing south from somewhere in Central Australia, towards Adelaide. That allows the director to use locations around Quorn and the Flinders Ranges, a more painterly landscape of blues, browns and golds. Ivin accentuates that by structuring the film around a series of dawns, a clever touch.
It brings a sense of hope: Kev and Chook are OK as long as they are together and the birds are able to announce a new day. There are at least five of these dawn scenes and they give the film a distinctive feel. Last Ride often uses the semi-dark, because these two are keeping to the shadows.
Kev (Weaving) is a ravaged kind of outlaw for whom jail was just another brutalisation, like childhood. He drinks too much and belts people, including his son. Chook has seen too much of his violence but his need for a father is strong. He wonders what happened to Max (John Brumpton), the man who looked after him during his father’s frequent absences in jail. During a brief stop-off on the road, he asks his father’s ex-girlfriend, Maryanne (Anita Hegh), if he can stay with her. One of the film’s strongest decisions is to make Chook a sentient being capable of making choices. The film rises or falls on these two male actors. Weaving has a brilliant instinct for playing damaged men, as he did in Little Fish. Kev is a heartbreaking character, a hard-shelled survivor. Weaving captures all his brittleness, the years of damage.
Tom Russell is simply wonderful as his son – he is wary, needy, watchful, frightened, calculating and yet he is still a kid who loves his toy cars and his fantasy life. At times he hates his father and so do we but we still don’t want to see them parted.
The film ends differently to the book and with less clarity. It’s more dramatic, more open to a range of interpretations but it almost has to be. The choice to delay the emotion requires a big finale and the film delivers. It’s a powerful movie, introducing some strong new talents.
Directed by Glendyn Ivin
Written by Mac Gudgeon, based on a novel by Denise Young
Running time 100 minutes
Cinemas Dendy Newtown, Cremorne Orpheum, Palace Verona