Peter Weir, Master and Commander of His Own Strange Trip


Am I waking or am I dreaming? Is this an unsettling gaze at some mystical Other, or fresh Oscar bait on the barbie? The soft dilemmas of the Peter Weir oeuvre get a fresh airing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s partial retrospective of the Australian New Waver turned designated Academy outsider turned missing person. Weir’s Siberian escape epic The Way Back—his first release since 2003’s would-be-but-wasn’t franchise-maker Master and Commander—marks the occasion for pondering the curious man who once followed Green Card (1990) sham couple Andie MacDowell and Gérard Depardieu with the passenger’s-view plane crash of Fearless (1993).

Weir’s Oz-incubated ’70s genre experiments and ’80s studio pictures form the meat of the series. Bitten by the showbiz bug after throwing together sketches for a cruise ship’s closed-circuit network, he worked in television but switched to full-on filmmaking after deciding he couldn’t top Monty Python. His 1974 debut feature, The Cars That Ate Paris, follows a stranded accident victim, another in the decade’s hostages stuck in grotesque hinterlands—here, a bush town that puts the “cult” in car culture. The stock-car bang-ups, village infighting, and mousy protagonist (who in his passivity is as creepy as his ruddy townie oppressors) make for above-average drive-in kicks.

Weir’s sense of foreboding, stroked by languidly offbeat editing, bloomed with his 1975 critical breakout, Picnic at Hanging Rock. The filmmaker’s precarious mix of irony and dippiness reaches a sweet spot of the sort often missed in the vague follow-throughs that plague his work. Fortunately, mood is all there is in Weir’s hothouse fusion of Victorian ghost story and outback omen, as he renders the tale of white-clad schoolgirls who vanish while clambering up a magnetic mountain. Synth whooshes, distorted earthquake samples, and pan flute swirl around the serene and shrill femininity on display (vistas by DP Russell Boyd). Indeterminacy also marks The Last Wave (1977, Weir’s first U.S. release), in which Richard Chamberlain’s Sydney lawyer defends urban Aboriginals charged with murder and grapples with visions—a signature Weir feature.

In the ’80s, Weir’s comfort with the visionary and with self-consciously exotic locales lent itself well to the self-memorializing quality of the decade’s prestige pictures. He first proved his mettle in his World War I sacrifice saga, Gallipoli, in which robust Australian youth (Mel Gibson and Mark Lee, as hot sprinting soldiers) are cut down in their prime on far-off sandy battlefields. Then The Year of Living Dangerously joined the vogue for expats in war-torn-from-the-pages-of-Newsweek hotspots (dateline Jakarta, 1965) and garnered an Oscar for Linda Hunt as an Asian photog—utterly convincing except when she opens her mouth. I, too, remember liking Witness (1985), but now the Harrison-Ford-meets-the-Amish close encounter (featuring Kelly McGillis, as hot Amish widow) feels both overblown and underexplored, fresh corn bracketed by cop-show potboiler, despite promisingly nasty touches in a bathroom and a silo. Ford’s trance-like Intense Look is in full force; he followed up with hard-to-endure Eccentric Crank drag in Weir’s patchy adaptation of Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast.

Fearless, the sole ’90s entry in the series, would be a tough sell in any era. The trauma-taboo film stars Jeff Bridges—survivor of a plane and a movie that both fly apart at the seams. It’s by turns ridiculous (Bridges to video-gaming son: “When you die, you don’t get another life!”) and riveting (Bridges’s schizoid-mensch high-wire act). But it’s also one great example of the strange explorations that might be missed if Weir didn’t wander.