The Australian Outback seems to occupy the same place in the Australian consciousness that the western frontier occupies in the American consciousness. It’s a harsh, rugged, unforgiving territory that seems to regularly double as a spiritual battleground for the desperate and unfulfilled. It’s a place where men learn to be men, and women…well, they just tend not to be there. Last Ride, starring Hugo Weaving and newcomer Tom Russell, is a grim yet somewhat uplifting coming of age story in that tradition. It’s also a fine movie in its own right.
Last Ride follows a hard bitten con, Kev, and his young son, Chook, as they flee for the Australian Outback in the wake of a violent crime. What was the crime? We’re not immediately told, but given the fact that both father and son have gone completely off the grid and are moving swiftly away from all civilization, we can only assume that it’s something terrible. A grizzled Weaving steers the two away from as much human contact as possible, stealing during the day and sleeping beneath the stars at night in order to avoid spending money they clearly don’t have. As the story progresses, the child manages to piece together the unfortunate series of events through his own scattered recollections.
Hugo Weaving gives one of the best performances of his career here as the fugitive with an explosive temper and a lengthy criminal history. With only a few rare exceptions, Weaving has typically never been content to play the two dimensional villain, and he stays true to his reputation here, providing depth and complexity to a character that many lesser actors may feel compelled to play as an unrepentant thug and alcoholic. The father here is completely unqualified to have a kid. He’s a criminal by nature and temperament; he’s impulsive, reckless, and occasionally cruel. In one gloomy sequence, Kev and Chook break into a museum and hide there for shelter; Kev tells the child to stay put, and then leaves the boy completely alone while he goes out to get drunk. In the morning, the hung over (and physically battered) father returns to the museum to find Chook talking with a young woman; Kev ties the woman up and steals her money and her car.
And yet it’s clear that the man loves his child. As the story progresses we discover that the Chook’s mother had abandoned him at an early age, leaving the task of caring for the kid to Kev. The fact that Kev brings Chook along at all during his flight from the law demonstrates an odd sort of commitment the boy. Yeah, he’s pulling his son away from any sort of stable environment and leading him into a situation that will potentially leave him scarred for life, but he’ll be damned if he leaves the boy alone. Sadly, that’s more love and commitment than many children in this world actually receive.
Kev wants to be a decent father. It’s just that he’s almost constitutionally incapable of being one. However, Last Ride becomes touching as we begin to capture glimmers of a caring father beneath Weaving’s grizzled exterior. In one scene, as the two are hiding out in a national park, in a calm, tender manner, Kev teaches the boy how to swim. These moments are few and far between, but these glimmers make the inevitable ending of the relationship between father and son all the sadder.
As for Tom Russell, who plays young Chook, all I can say is that he appears to be a brilliant kid. Great, truly natural child actors are rare, and Tom Russell is one of them. Most child actors tend to be either completely flat or overly precious and cute, but Russell manages to be completely natural. Under Glendyn Ivin’s direction, the boy turns in a performance that is every bit as subtle and nuanced as Weaving’s. Through Russell’s performance, we can tell that Chook wants to be as tough as his father, but that he’s possessed of an innate decency that neither the Outback’s harsh landscape nor his father’s brutal parenting can wipe from him.
As the film’s title implies, things end badly for the two. There’s a definite note of finality to the story. And yet there’s a final, uplifting shot that indicates that Chook will endure and emerge from this experience even stronger than his father. It’s that balance that director Glendyn Ivin achieves that makes Last Ride a first rate character study.