❉ The concluding part of our walkabout through Peter Weir’s most underrated film of the seventies.
“Who are you? Are you a Fish? Are you a Snake? Are you a Man? Who are you? Are you Mulkurul?”
-Charlie tries to ascertain what manner of creature David really is.
There is a wonderfully creepy sequence following Chris and Charlie’s dinner at David and Annie’s house. From his own home, Charlie, in a trance-like state, psychically invades the Burton household.
We see that the photo albums left out on the dining table, and yet again, much attention is given to David’s South American ancestry (the album is open at a photograph of his great grandfather standing at the entrance of an ancient temple upon which a snake motif is carved—something Charlie found of deep significance at dinner), and we also notice for the first time that there’s something slightly “off” about the Burton home; there’s a disturbing painting on the wall depicting ghostly white figure; there’s an odd sculpture on a windowsill decorated with abstract tribal designs, and when David wakes up with a start after having a premonition of Charlie in traditional tribal make-up, there’s a brief glimpse of a print hanging on the bedroom wall; it’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai.
These maybe little details the viewer may miss but they tell us much. Art, above all else, betrays the unconscious, and although the Burtons are outwardly normal–downright conventional, even—they seem to have some sort of connection to another realm.
After another meeting with Chris in which he tells David “Charlie is an Owl,” but that he thinks David might be Mulkurul, a spirit from another tribe from across the sea, David examines the personal effects of the victim. Amongst them, he finds a triangular stone with a face-like design on it, just like the one Charlie painted in the cliff face. But David has seen this before; Chris was holding it in his dream.
After Annie tells him that she’s seen Charlie watching their home, David braves a shower of black rain to confront him. Charlie reveals he can speak English and places David in a trance, prompting the exchange at the head of the article to take place. David is Mulkurul.
David consults anthropologist Dr Whitburn (Vivean Gray), who tells him the design represents a spirit from the Dreamtime. The term refers both to the Aboriginal creation myth, and a parallel reality which mirrors and influences our own world.
Dr Whitburn explains to David that the Mulkurul were a race of spirits who came from the rising sun bringing sacred objects with them. They were part of the mythology of a long-vanished tribe from the Sydney region, and that they acted through humans, but when asked if such a person could be a white man, Dr Whiburn scoffs at the notion.
On his way home, David has another vision. Stuck in another weather- induced traffic jam, David sees his car radio overflowing with water and the city outside the window submerged, the populace drowned…
With Annie and the children safely packed off to her mother’s, David tackles the trial, but with Charlie watching from the galleries, his attempts to wrangle to truth from Chris and the others end in failure.
“Why didn’t you tell me there were mysteries?” asks David of his stepfather after it’s all over. It should be remembered, he’s asking this, of a priest. “You stood in that church and explained them away!” Father Burton reveals something David cannot remember from his childhood; a month before his mother died, David was dreaming it, exactly as it was to happen…
After this, the film itself seems to enter a parallel Dreamtime. In a repetition of a scene from near the beginning of the film and accompanied by an ominously droning didgeridoo score and Charlie’s mystical chants, we see David return home. One of his daughters greets him at the door, and it appears his family have returned, but just as everything seems normal, David closes the door and we jump cut to the inside of the house to find him alone. The building shakes, water pours through it, an owl stares in through the window…
Chris appears in the doorway. But how can he be there? The last time we saw him, he was being locked away in his cell…
Nevertheless, he leads David on a strange adventure, deep down in the storm drains and sewers, deeper and deeper, far below the city, until they reach a vast hidden cavern; a sacred place since the Dreamtime.
But it is not filled with Aboriginal artefacts. The huge monuments and wall paintings are South American (an important point lost on many viewers). Amongst them is the serpent from the temple in David’s album. It is Mayan Vision Serpent; the conduit between two worlds.
“…And now,” explains Chris, “Because of your dream, and my dream too, I brought you here…”
So what’s actually going on? Is it really happening? Or are they sharing a dream? Is he in his cell and David is safely back at home with his family?
Chris tells David that what he is looking for is in a chamber “past the snake” and he is going back to the Dreamtime. If this is a shared vision, perhaps we are to take this to mean his is going to take his own life in his cell. The last time we see Chris, he is naked standing in the middle of circle of stone figures, then he is gone…
David finds a chamber filled with Mayan hieroglyphs depicting the meeting of two cultures; the Aborigines and the Mulkurul who arrived in boats from across the sea. The black rain and hail are all depicted in the pictograms, as is a massive apocalyptic wave.
But that’s not all he finds. Amidst the artefacts is a death mask. An ancient, South American face preserved for thousands of years. And as David stares down at it, he realises that the face resembles his own.
Most worrying of all, he sees a calendar ending in the paintings a second wave. Nature works in cycles, and it periodically cleanses the world to start afresh.
As David gathers up as many artefacts as he can, included the ancient mask that so resembles his own face, he is confronted by Charlie, whom he struggles with and kills. The murder weapon, as it turns out, is the same blood-stained stone David saw in his dreams.
After getting lost in the sewers, David drops the artefacts, losing his only proof of his adventure. It’s a wonderfully subtle nod to a similar twist in H.P. Lovecraft’s 1936 story “Shadow out of Time,” which also features its hero uncovering shocking truths about who he really is in labyrinthine tunnels deep beneath the Australian landscape and losing the proof as he struggles to find his way to safety.
David does, finally emerge from a drainage tunnel on the beach. Exhausted and broken he falls to his knees as he is confronted with the film’s final ambiguity.
Real or imagined, looming on the horizon in front of him is ‘The Last Wave.’
❉ About the author: Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became and actor and has appeared in several film and television productions.
❉ Jonathan Sisson’s 2001 film ‘The Institute’ is now online on Vimeo and can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/193049022