Last Ride (2009)

An early scene in Last Ride, director Glendyn Ivin’s stark road movie, finds Kev (Hugo Weaving), a low-rent criminal on the run, cutting his long hair and shaving his beard in a restaurant bathroom.  It’s a half-hearted and largely useless attempt to change his appearance because of the actor playing Kev.  It doesn’t matter his hairstyle or facial hair, Weaving’s face remains striking and unforgettable—an annoyed scowl under a furrowed brow set off by severe eyebrows.  It’s the first hint the audience is given that, despite the film just beginning, Kev is playing out his final options.  Short of disfigurement or plastic surgery, Kev’s face is instantly memorable, making him an easy spot for law enforcement and marking him as not the brightest criminal committed to film.

An unnamed crime forces Kev to flee across the Australian Outback with his son, Chook (Tom Russell).  Chook is the legacy of Kev’s misspent life.  Only eleven or twelve, Chook is still young enough to be saved from the life his father is dragging him into, but his options are limited.  He’s illiterate, he already shows criminal tendencies as a shoplifter, and he harbors abandonment issues from the absence of his mother who left him at a very young age.  Making him even more vulnerable, he’s too tenderhearted for the criminal life as he worries constantly about Max (John Brumpton), Kev’s friend who suffered some sort of injury that has forced Kev and Chook on their journey.

Kev does his best to brush off concerns about Max and keep moving forward, but it’s obvious that he is hiding the truth from Chook and does not know were to go.  He makes a brief stop to visit Maryanne (Anita Hegh), an old girlfriend who was once a mother figure to Chook.  She shows concern for the duo–even allowing herself to fall briefly back into bed with Kev–but cannot help them for fear of getting drawn back into Kev’s untenable lifestyle.  Moving on from this visit, Kev and Chook meander across the Outback, stealing cars and food and occasionally getting into fights—with strangers and each other.  Eventually, the question of why they are on the run is answered and Chook realizes his need to separate himself from Kev if he is to have any hope for a life beyond a desperate day-to-day existence.

If the plot sounds overly simple, that’s because it is.  Ivin is more concerned with observing the interactions between Kev and Chook than in creating a suspenseful crime drama or fugitives on the run action film.  At one point, Kev jokes to Chook they’re just like “Butch and Sundance.”  But instead of the rollicking, myth-making tone established by George Roy Hill’s film, Last Ride stays closer to sad truths and grim desperation.  It’s hardly what can be called entertaining, but it is affective.

Much of the credit for how well the film works goes to Weaving.  Based purely on his actions, Kev is almost a complete bastard.  He’s a terrible parent, a mediocre criminal, given to fits of violence, self-pitying, and directionless.  Weaving wisely does not try to win over audience sympathy.  Instead, he plays Kev as a walking tragedy.  He allows sparks of a charming personality to show through.  Granted, he only shows this side when he needs something.  But considering he turns to this side of his character to solve a problem when he could just resort to violence shows a humanity still operating at his core.  Unfortunately, the charm is hidden under a layer of barely repressed anger that he often takes out on Chook.  From scene to scene, it’s never clear if Kev is going to act in a fatherly manner and share tips on how to tell directions by using the stars or take a belt and beat his son mercilessly for a very stupid reason.

The tension between the two sides of Kev is what supplies most of the drama in the film and Weaving fills that complex requirement in spades.  I just wish he had a more intriguing partner in Chook.

Chook is written very much as a victim who may or may not be on his way to a life of crime.  It would be understandable if that were the direction he takes.  Despite attempts to make Chook something more of a morally ambiguous character by giving him moments of threatened violence and criminal tendencies, he never comes off as anything more than a victim.  This lack of intrigue is not the fault of Russell.  He gives a very natural, understated performance.  He’s just barely asked to do anything more than look confused or frightened.

Despite the lack of a compelling character in Chook, the film works very well as a bleak character study of Kev.  Ivin may pull off some atmospheric sequences using a moody score by Paul Charlier and striking photography by Greig Fraser, but the film is Weaving’s show all the way.  This turns out to be a good thing.  Even when the screenplay by Mac Gudgeon (working from a novel by Denise Young) fails to provide any suspense beyond just how badly things will turn for Kev, Weaving always finds a wrinkle in the scene that keeps all eyes on the screen.

Released in Australia in 2009, the film is just now playing in very limited release across the United States.  It’s worth seeking out if it plays near you.

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