The Last Great Wilderness



UK 2002 : David MACKENZIE : 90-95 mins

Actors aren’t often any great shakes in the scriptwriting department, which is why projects billed as improvised or even semi-improvised seldom turn out very well – especially if it’s the director’s first feature. According to this theory The Last Great Wilderness has all the makings of a real dog’s breakfast – a semi-improv, dogme-influenced blend of black comedy and horror that barely bothers to conceal its debts to its many celebrated cinematic forerunners. But somehow it just about manages to work and assert an endearingly rough-edged identity of its own – suggesting director and co-writer Mackenzie is a name to watch when he settles down to more orthodox projects like the forthcoming Alexander Trocchi adaptation Young Adam.

Here he’s working with his brother Alastair, whose character Charlie isn’t a million miles away from his ‘English-accented posh-bloke in Scotland’ role in the BBC’s Monarch of the Glen. Charlie’s wife has recently run off with a pop star (unidentified in the movie, but audibly Jarvis Cocker of Pulp) whose tunes dominate the airwaves. The infuriated Charlie seeks revenge, and sets off for the musician’s rural retreat with the aim of burning it to the ground. Stopping en route at a motorway service station, he picks up a livewire hitch-hiker, Vicente a.k.a. Vince (Jonny Phillips) who claims to be a half-Spanish lothario on the run from unspecified heavies. Not long after, Charlie’s car runs out of fuel in a remote spot where the only visible sign of life is Moor Lodge, a retreat for the psychologically unstable run by the gruff but seemingly benign Rory (David Hayman).

Getting us to Moor Lodge is a rather laborious process, and the basic set-up (moody, vengeful loner driving through countryside, picks up ‘zany’ hitch-hiker) is a standard-issue scriptwriter’s contrivance. Luckily, things pick up once we’re introduced to the characters who populate the retreat, and the film starts staking out the agreeably atmospheric terrain previously covered in ‘weirdo-filled mansion’ movies like The Old Dark House (1932, remade in 1962), The Horror of It All (1964) and What A Carve Up! (1961) – with inevitable ominous hints of the ‘Tartan terrors’ in The Wicker Man (1973). The final act, meanwhile, when push comes to shove in an unexpectedly gory climax, belongs firmly alongside paranoid rural nightmares like Deliverance (1972) and Straw Dogs (1971).

The Last Great Wilderness, while no masterpiece, is nevertheless a little more than the sum of its many parts. The mood of the film is pleasantly retro – as well as the many movie references, there’s much ‘mad people are the sane ones’ talk ripped straight from the 1960s tomes of R D Laing, plus a decidedly 80s-ish soundtrack from Scots folk-popsters The Pastels, who even make a brief appearance in a party scene in which everyone, the band included, appears in drag (star Mackenzie looks unexpectedly like Juliette Binoche).

Director Mackenzie creates and sustains an intriguing tone, helped by the fact that he has a good eye for composition and landscape, aided by cinematographer Simon Dennis capturing some suitably intense widescreen DV images of the wintry Scots landscapes. Apart from the soundtrack, and a couple of minor (and ill-advised) special effects touches in which a ghostly presence flits in and out of sight, this could probably be described as a ‘McDogme‘ project, and the intimacy of the video cameras (not to mention their capacity for infinite retakes) suits the thrown-together, defiantly unpolished, rough-Scots vibe that gives the film its unpredictable, thistly charm.

8th March, 2003
(seen 23rd January, Warner Village, Ellesmere Port)

For an interview with the director and his collaborating brother click here.

by Neil Young