I’m not sure what veteran filmmaker Peter Weir has for breakfast every morning, but whatever it is, I wish Michael Bay would eat a few hundred bowls. While many of Hollywood’s highest-grossing directors bide their time chasing the next overstuffed action-blockbuster, Weir has spent more than two decades crafting subtler yet equally riveting films that hinge on the quiet complexities of human interconnection.
What's more, the Australian-born director has yet to unleash an outright clunker. Sure, audiences and critics didn’t unanimously embrace the existential musings of 1993’s “Fearless” or the blunt tenderness of his 1990 romantic comedy “Green Card.” But even those films were earnestly effective in courting universal themes of love, death and displacement.
Terrence Malick and the late Stanley Kubrick come to mind as other directors with a similar reputation for quality over quantity. That said, Weir is downright prodigious by comparison, turning out nine features since 1980, compared to Kubrick’s three and Malick’s one. But what really marks each of these artists’ works is a dutiful attention to detail and a consistent investment in stories and characters rather than push-button celluloid flash.
If you’ve glimpsed the trailer for Weir’s new oceanic epic “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” you’ve seen the iconic Russell Crowe grit his teeth in period garb aboard a 19th century sailing vessel, windblown and bracing for battle on the high seas. But Weir fans know better than to expect another round of swashbuckler redux or shlocky, “Pirates of the Caribbean”-styled thrills.
He knows his way around A-list actors, too, having previously guided Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford and Jim Carrey through career-exploding roles (in “The Year of Living Dangerously,” “Witness” and “The Truman Show,” respectively). And while Weir’s Oscar-winning countryman Crowe certainly hasn’t lacked for limelight or thespian heavy-lifting, “Master and Commander” presents a “Gladiator”-caliber context in which the star can be both superheroic and unmistakably mortal. As British naval captain Jack Aubrey — the lead figure in the Patrick O’Brian novels on which the film is based — Crowe’s brazen machismo is balanced by his character’s close relationship with ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), who tests the skipper’s values and priorities when it counts.
More than standard male bonding
This type of high-stakes male bonding is just one of the notable threads running through Weir’s enviable filmography. In his breakout 1981 war drama “Gallipoli,” Mel Gibson and Mark Lee play a pair of young Australian sprinters who wind up serving side by side in a hopeless military advance against the Turks in Egypt. The pronounced differences between these two — Lee is reserved and duty-bound, Gibson is a cocky meanderer — are managed with enough nuance that we believe wholly in their deepening friendship and in the lessons they indirectly offer one another in the face of life-threatening circumstance.
Likewise, in 1982’s “The Year of Living Dangerously,” zealous journalist Guy Hamilton (Gibson) forms a fast and formidable bond with photographer Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt) as both men seek thrills and shards of truth amid the violent instability of early-’60s Indonesia. Each is soon faced with serious doubts about the other’s loyalty and integrity, but the strength and substance of their connection is what carries the film. (Hunt landed a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her ambitious gender-flipping turn.)
In 1985’s “Witness,” Philadelphia cop John Book (Harrison Ford) is rendered a misfit when, in the midst of a dirty-cop potboiler, he’s wounded and forced to hide out in an Amish community in rural Pennsylvania. In a memorable barn-raising scene, we watch as Book connects with the local menfolk by way of carpentry and basic kindness, immersing himself in their world and earning their cautious respect. It’s yet another case of Weir watching men navigate their own vulnerability among other men, emerging with deepened perspective.
Fathers and sons
There’s another dimension to these relationships that’s distinctively Weir, one in which main characters are gradually transformed through a fatherly (or big brotherly) mentor figure. The core partnerships in “Gallipoli” and “The Year of Living Dangerously” illustrate this point plainly enough, but it was 1989’s “Dead Poet’s Society” that really drove it home. In a widely hailed dramatic leap, Robin Williams devoured the role of John Keating, an unorthodox English teacher at an affluent prep school whose influence on his students — Ethan Hawke and Sean Patrick Leonard among them — is poetic and profound.
While 1986’s “The Mosquito Coast” didn’t enjoy anything resembling the mainstream acclaim of “Dead Poet’s Society,” it’s another tale about a vital and volatile mentor-student relationship. Harrison Ford plays a husband and father of four who boldly moves his family from the materially cozy climes of the United States to the remote rainforest of Central America in hopes of saving them — and himself — from a life of capitalist complacency. As his master plan unravels, his complex relationship with his eldest son (River Phoenix) becomes the emotional fulcrum of the movie, lending rich emotional counterpoint to their physical struggle to survive.
In 1998, Weir’s “The Truman Show” featured a more figurative father-son pairing. With Jim Carrey starring as the titular object of his own 24-hour reality TV show, Ed Harris delivered an Oscar-nominated performance as Christof, the creator of the show and chief manipulator in keeping Truman unaware that his life’s every moment has been staged and choreographed for a mass audience. Weir does spectacular work in detailing this artificial otherworld, but it’s the climactically tender confrontation between Harris and Carrey that seals the film’s lasting impact.
A never-ending journey
Speaking of otherworlds, Weir’s most consistent thematic concern may be travel-more specifically, the parallel psychological and spiritual journeys that so often accompany physical ones. On some level, each of his works is notably preoccupied with matters of place, from the ethereal day-trip of his 1975 arthouse piece “Picnic at Hanging Rock” to the perilous overseas excursions of “Dangerously,” “Mosquito Coast and the new “Master and Commander.”
Indeed, if the movies are a hemisphere unto themselves, Weir may be best regarded as a master tour guide, patiently and expertly leading audiences to exotic and poignant destinations both inside and outside the body. So long as his extraordinary winning streak continues, movie lovers and filmmakers would do well to follow his sure lead.
James Diers is a freelance writer living in St. Paul, Minn.