It can’t be easy winning Cannes’ Palme d’Or with your first short film. How do you top that? Glendyn Ivin‘s Cracker Bag took home the top prize in 2003 and this year his feature film debut Last Ride confirms the promise we saw back then and establishes Ivin as a talent to watch.
The film’s pre-credit sequence features a 10 year-old boy moving through the silent cars of a parking lot a rifle in his hands, humming gently to himself. The tone is set: mysterious – questions come up sooner than they are answered – and not a little dangerous (is that a real rifle?)…
Petty criminal Kev (Hugo Weaving) and his son Chook (Tom Russell) are on the run. Seeking refuge first with an old flame (Anita Hegh, sensational), then in the anonymity of the open road, the pair can rely only on each other for survival. Scavenging for food and stealing cars, they make their way deeper and deeper into the Outback, through landscapes as harsh and unforgiving as their circumstances.
What Chook misses and clearly longs for is a home (he’s even shown building a house of cards to kill time), but beyond the events which might’ve sent him running, Kev is the sort of man for whom nesting is abhorrent. By turns protective and violent, Kev demonstrates a knack for cruelty which threatens his son’s trust – the key engine of both the duo’s relationship dynamic and the film’s narrative.
Doing away with exposition, screenwriter Mac Gudgeon makes the correct choice of revealing the story and motivation behind the runaways’ actions slowly and in short, shocking glimpses. As a result the film demands – and gets – our undivided attention. It helps that both Hugo Weaving and newcomer Tom Russell deliver engrossing performances, creating believable characters who share a chemistry that never feels forced.
Weaving manages to make us feel more than repulsion for his unsympathetic character by reaching for hidden emotional depths, showing us glimpses of what could have been, had life been kinder to him. Unpredictable and violent one moment, thoughtful and kind the next, he presents a complex portrayal of fatherhood which may resonate vividly with some viewers. Opposite him, young Tom Russell holds his own, getting across a potent mix of innocence and resolve, careful not to use the cute kid angle to pull at the heartstrings.
Shot in jaw-dropping widescreen by cinematographer Greig Fraser, Last Ride mines the Outback for all its menacing but poetic worth. When the duo arrive in the vast, desert-like expanse of South Australia’s shallow Lake Gairdner, the road dissolves into an endless horizon. In other words, the straight line of certainty makes way for an open-ended blank slate in which every direction is a possibility. At this point the film momentarily achieves a state of vertiginous grace which stays with the viewer long after the end credits.
Following in the tracks of other road movies exploring the myth of Australian masculinity (from Backroads to Cactus), Last Ride asks tough questions about responsibility… and delivers rewarding answers. It does so by borrowing with remarkable intelligence from Aboriginal culture (Kev claims that his ancestors were blackfellas): from genesis stories told around a campfire to ideals of self-sufficiency and being at one with nature, not to mention borrowing the walkabout as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood.
The tough love of fatherhood, taken to violent extremes here, seeks to transmit a strict idea of manhood while teaching hard lessons to fit a hard life. Though the film is bleak in its outlook, its conclusion provides an uplifting truth: that by taking responsibility for our actions, we can both learn from our fathers and disobey them when the time comes, thereby forging our own, independent identity.
The father describes the pair as mongrels, and Last Ride, it can be argued, is indeed first and foremost about identity. The central question here is the clash between what is inherited and was is learned, between the values transmitted from one generation to the next and the experiences which can allow these values to be contradicted.
At work in this deceptively simple film is perhaps a quest to define not just masculinity but Australian identity as a whole: the product of a criminal past and a violent upbringing, the rejection of age-old traditions coupled with a silent yearning for civilization, the constant struggle for social harmony in an inhospitable land.
In the hands of more fearless filmmakers, this coming-of-age film could’ve been a masterpiece. It comes short because it cares too much about audience expectations. Adapted from a novel by Denise Young, the screenplay is a little too tight: everything that happens later in the film is carefully set up in the first half so that the savvy viewer is able to guess – earlier than is intended – both the reason for the runaways’ escape and the inexorable resolution they are heading towards.
Stylistically, the film could have benefited from longer takes and fewer cuts, from letting the mysterious and mystical force of the landscape fully permeate the proceedings. Narratively, it would have gained from resisting the predictable reward of a morally sound ending. Despite its flaws (which, in the context of current Australian film sensibilities, might be seen as strengths), this is a ride well worth taking. This journey into the darker recesses of our collective psyche may not always be pleasant (reminiscent, in this sense, of Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel The Road) but it is one from which we emerge entirely strengthened.