Peter Weir is the tip of the spear of the Australian New Wave, a collection of Aussie filmmakers including among others Fred Schepisi, Philip Noyce, George Miller, Gillian Armstrong and Bruce Beresford. All had their share of success, but the cream of the crop are clearly these three: Gillian Armstrong, for never doing anything that didn’t feel vital and personal; George Miller, for being an all-time genius of a unique kinetic madness; Peter Weir, who proved himself to be a lyrical excavator of male psyches and relationships.
Weir has completed only thirteen feature films over the course of a 48 year career – a lamentably low number for those who appreciate his work, but a sum due at least in part to Weir’s decision to prioritize time spent with his family. I think you can see his concerns, his empathy, bleed into his films. His two best-known, most popularly-received pictures, Dead Poets Society and Witness, both feature strangers in strange lands: the progressive teacher in a regressive school who champions individuality and emotional transparency, and the grizzled big city detective taking refuge from the corruption of his own department in a rigid, cloistered community of a different sort. They are polar examples of masculinity, forced to confront systems hostile to the expression of vulnerability in men. Cast as heroes, they find they are helpless to change the world, but it’s not too late to give voice to the parts of themselves that are frightened and powerless.
Photo: Everett Collection
I have some love for both of these films, but Witness, in particular, holds up in my mind as something like a perfect film. Harrison Ford’s John Book, Kelly McGillis’ Rachel, and Lukas Haas’ young Samuel, witnessing a murder in a train station representing a loss of innocence for not only the child, but the child in Book. It’s the first Peter Weir film I saw in the theater; a forbidden film — what, with its R-rating and its brief flash of nudity — that works as a gritty police procedural, a rapturous love story, and a fish-out-of-water light comedy which somehow manages not to condescend to the Amish community where it’s mostly set. It doesn’t even take much squinting to pick out the warning embedded herein about the grave corrupting influences of cultural diffusion. “What you take into your hand, you take into your heart,” Samuel is warned at one point, and it’s a warning I’ve kept in my head for decades now.
The power of the film is in its premise, its script and performances, sure, but what deserves some time in consideration is Weir’s penchant for capturing beautiful landscapes and scenes from nature to intersperse with the petty struggles of too temporary man. I saw Dead Poets Society the year I tried to kill myself and, to be sure, the terminal choice made by boarding school star Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) resonated with me. It is romantic when caught in the tides of self-loathing and despair to imagine oneself the continuation of a line of mourned poets. Watching it today, I’m destroyed by the “carpe diem” sequence in which new English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) urges his class to consider the class photographs of previous generations and hear their legacy as a spur to live life in the moment, because it’s short and incredibly, cruelly fleet.
Photo courtesy Everett Collection
I dismissed this film for decades because I thought it was arrested. It was me who was arrested. Keating is right, and his use of Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain” – the eulogy he wrote for Abraham Lincoln, is painfully, dulcetly on-the-nose – not only for the fate of Keating ultimately in the film, but for the fate of Williams himself (who seemed like he could never die, only to die by his own hand). “Words and ideas can change the world,” Keating says, and Weir films the New England fall with the sadness and wisdom of a man much older than he was at the time of the shooting. Nature is cyclical, he says, and our time in it is limited. Be sure it’s not meaningless. “That you are here – that life exists and identity / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse,” says Whitman’s “O Me! O Life!” And on the banks of an autumn lake, it’s fair to wonder what your verse will be.
Between Witness and Dead Poets Society is the very personal, and very unpopular, The Mosquito Coast, an adaptation of Paul Theroux’s novel about another iconoclast, free-thinker, who turns his back on capitalism to move his family to the wilderness in pursuit of a purer life. What he finds instead is the impossibility of escaping from the limitations imposed on him by his own idealism. He is betrayed by the faithlessness of others. His belief becomes fanaticism and Weir suggests it’s inevitable that it do so.
The films Weir made in Australia deserve their own detailed explorations: The Cars That Ate Paris, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Plumber, Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously – each tied intimately to the mysteries of the land, each in some way exploring the zero sum endgame of colonialism and the impossibility of knowing, of truly making sense of man’s place in an insensate universe. All that we have is a moment. We are only the center of the story briefly and then nevermore. His themes are illustrated vividly in his superlative The Truman Show and the franchise that should-have-been Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Who are we? Where do we fit? And what are the things hunting us through the fog and the past? What is freedom? What is escape and how do we distinguish it from deliverance and grace? His is Tennyson’s “come my friends, ‘tis not too late to seek a newer world,” an invitation to explore interior landscapes and to live fully in the moment. But of all of these masterworks, my favorite Peter Weir film is Fearless.
Photo: ©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection
Released in 1993, the creation of it is itself lovely proof of Weir’s themes. He asked executives at Warner Bros. for their most “broken” script, that smart project no one could quite figure out how to turn into a movie, and so Rafael Yglesias’ adaptation of his own unpublished novel about a survivor of a horrific airplane crash. Weir has said the script is really two films and how there was really no way to make it one film, so he made the central drama of the plane going down as secondary to the story of how a man is forced by untreated trauma to embrace his life; yes, to seize the day. Early in it, Max (played by Jeff Bridges in a role originally conceived for Mel Gibson, who would’ve been wonderful in it) sits by the side of a road against his rental car in the middle of nowhere. He spits into the fine brown dirt and wads the clay he’s made between his fingers, absolutely in this present with the way the particles feel against his skin and the miracle that he’s brought something new into the world. Max walks from the plane crash through a cornfield with a beatific calm. Later in a shower at a motel down the road, he discovers he has a wound in his side not entirely unlike stigmata. For Max, he’s died and been resurrected and it’s made him an evangelist in the importance of living. He destroys his son’s video game console, telling him it’s not real – he neglects his wife (Isabella Rosellini) to spend time with another survivor, Carla (Rosie Perez in one of the great performances of the ’90s), mourning her inability to save her baby from the wreck. As the airline, an unctuous damages lawyer (Tom Hulce) and a trauma psychiatrist (John Turturro) try to talk to him about what he’s been through either out of concern for him or an interest in financial gain, Max retreats farther and farther into a dangerous solipsism. There is a bridge too far, Weir warns, to seizing the day. A life unexamined is no life at all.
On its surface, Fearless shouldn’t work. It’s not about anything tangible. Almost nothing happens in it. What it is, is among the most spiritual films ever made in the United States. It is a celebration of surviving trauma and simultaneously a prod for survivors to find help. Max’s first visit upon walking out of the crash is to find an old girlfriend (Robin Pearson Rose) whom he takes out to breakfast, asks for a bowl of fresh strawberries one of which Max feeds to her, saying “forbidden fruit tastes as sweet.” She considers this a pass but he disabuses her of the notion. Rose is only in this film for this one scene and she’s so good, so unaffected and true, she breaks my heart. All of Fearless breaks my heart. The characters are each given absolute humanity, they are neither good nor bad, they are just people you know. To the end of her life, Giulietta Masina says people would stop her on the street and ask her how the character, Cabiria, she played in her husband’s Nights of Cabiria, was doing. I wonder how Max and Carla are doing every single day.
Fearless is the great Peter Weir film because of its absolute empathy towards everyone in it, and because its view of the world is that it is beautiful, unimaginable in its beauty and scale, and also doesn’t care about you. Its portrayal of trauma is unmatched, too. I’ve never seen anything like it. What’s happened to Max makes him seem, on the outside, calmer and more connected but it’s an eggshell: perfect in form and function, but fragile to the right kind of fracture. My mother died two months ago and I haven’t mourned her at all. I have felt no shift in me from before to after in our difficult relationship. There has been no closure and there are times when I’m hiking with my dogs or having dinner with my family where I feel more grateful, happier, present. I will fracture. The air is running out in here. But I don’t think I can do it without help.
Peter Weir is getting an honorary Oscar in 2023 and on the scale of things, I’d compare it to Hitchcock finally getting an Oscar at the end of his career, near the end of his life. Percentage wise, and this isn’t a contest, I’d offer the hot take that Weir had a better batting average than even the Master of Suspense. His best films are all-time great and his worst films, like Green Card for instance, are still interesting and in many ways at least visually sumptuous. But Fearless is the film I go back to at the lowest moment of my life, when I need counsel from a familiar object, a screen against which I bounce experiences and ideas.
Peter Weir on the set of Green Card, circa 1990.Photo: Everett Collection
At a mark about a third of the way in, Weir shoots Max lying in bed from a god’s eye view, goes into an extreme close-up to his closed eye, then another into his ear. You can see every hair, every pore and in that moment Max is precious. His wife takes off his shoes and looks at him with concern, and we see into his dream which is a flashback to the crash and the moment when the stress of the moment, the knowledge of his impending death, causes him to break. Fearless is a portrait of breaking and coming back together again as something not better, not worse, just changed. It is a film about being so afraid for so long that you assume a mantle of toxic positivity, you search for gurus in the form of self-help hucksters and profiteers, you wrestle with your faith and you pretend you’re okay. But you’re not okay. None of us are okay by ourselves. It helps to help, of course, as Max discovers through reaching out to fellow survivors to offer comfort he himself doesn’t feel – but in the end, Fearless offers the un-American, un-masculine idea that you can’t do this alone. There are no heroes waiting to save us, there’s only you and me and finally being clear enough to ask for help.
Walter Chaw is the Senior Film Critic for filmfreakcentral.net. His book on the films of Walter Hill, with introduction by James Ellroy, is now available for pre-order. His monograph for the 1988 film MIRACLE MILE is available now.