Kev, the man at the center of Last Ride, has a very particular skill set: He can lift wallets, steal cars and survive in the Australian bush, sleeping under the stars and dining on fresh wild rabbit. Taking care of his 10-year-old son, however, comes less naturally to him.
Kev is an ex-con and a common movie type, and Last Ride is sometimes too familiar a tale. But Hugo Weaving, best known for The Matrix and the Lord of the Rings trilogies, brings subtlety and poignance to the hoodlum's mercurial character. Kev can do good when he takes time to think; that just doesn't happen very often.
Weaving is well matched by Tom Russell, making his screen debut as Chook, the boy who at first doesn't understand that this excursion with his dad is actually a run from the law. Chook is confused and overwhelmed, but Russell conveys an inner strength that makes plausible the kid's gradual shift toward independence.
The story opens in a used-car lot, to which first-time feature director Glendyn Ivin will later return in flashbacks. Kev, clearly in a hurry, alters his look by hacking off some of his hair and beard. Then he takes Chook on a bus ride, the first leg of a journey that will lead through some of South Australia's less hospitable terrain.
Kev and Chook visit one of the man's old girlfriends, the closest thing the boy has ever had to a mother. Chook keeps asking about another family friend, whose situation will eventually be revealed. Everyone else the two encounter is a stranger, and Kev insists on keeping them that way.
There is a third recurring character: the land, an antipodean moonscape of rock, scrub and a large salt lake covered with just a scrim of water. Not many people frequent this area, rendered in elegant widescreen compositions by Snow White and the Huntsman cinematographer Greig Fraser. But the place abounds with rabbits and is sometimes traversed by camels — both reminders of rash Australian experiments with introducing species.
Chook's affinity for animals has already been established, so when his dad teaches him how to shoot them, we see the making of a future vegan. The boy's sexuality also becomes an issue, although Kev's reaction to it may just be another of his overreactions.
Dad tells his son that they're "Butch and Sundance," a comparison that, oddly, is also made by a character in another movie that opens today, Savages. Chook doesn't get the reference, and as he learns more he becomes less interested in being his father's partner in crime. Kev teaches Chook lessons in survival, while the boy ponders how to use this new information to set himself free.
Adapted from Denise Young's novel by screenwriter Mac Gudgeon, Last Ride is neatly structured. Events are carefully foreshadowed, and the flashbacks fill in the story without clogging it; this is primarily a character study, not an exercise in narrative acrobatics.
More than accents and scenery say that this is Australia; the movie also muses on the relationship between whites and aboriginals, a common theme in Down Under cinema. Kev, though, is a universal type. Indeed, that may be why Last Ride has waited three years for an American release. Its portrait of a well-meaning bad man, while uncommonly well crafted, is something less than a revelation.