Words By: Jack Dawson
Last Cab to Darwin is one of the best films so far this year, a textbook example of how to make a quiet and reflective film that doesn’t get bogged down under its own weight. Razor sharp pacing and fantastic performances help to carry this film to its conclusion, giving us an introspective and moving Australian film. An introspective and moving Australian film featuring a tree full of strung up dead cats. It’s a tourist attraction.
Just thought I’d get that out of the way quickly.
Rex is an old man who’s reached a comfortable point in his life, occasionally dallying with his neighbour while refusing to commit to a long term relationship and being on first-name terms with most of the population of Broken Hill, which he has never travelled out of. But numerous tumours growing in his stomach disrupt this amiable existence, and Rex is faced with three months of agonizingly painful and degrading existence left to him before shuffling off his mortal coil. But then he hears that the Northern Territory has recently passed legislation that allows euthanasia to be practiced. A road trip ensues.
After the disappointment of Ruben Guthrie a couple of weeks ago, it’s a relief to have something nice to say about an Australian film, particularly one with such a disciplined grasp on its source material as this film. And funnily enough, Last Cab to Darwin is also based on a play, like Ruben Guthrie. But the transition is significantly smoother here, thanks to the film makers taking every possible advantage offered to them, from naturalistic settings to the iconography of road trip movies. It also helps that Michael Caton brings Rex to life through a performance that ranks among the best that I’ve seen this year. He’s always been an actor who can speak volumes with his eyes alone, and his performance here is no exception. It’s a masterclass in how to make a character who sometimes does bad things sympathetic to an audience. Jackie Weaver also turns in a nuanced performance as the doctor who wishes to legalise euthanasia, and Mark Coles Smith steals most of the scenes he’s in, if not the entire movie. Honestly it’s worth seeing the movie just to watch the actors work.
It ought to also be said that the cinematography and set design of this film is top notch as well. As with so many Australian films, Last Cub to Darwin tries to reconcile a perceived ideal of rural Australia with the real world reality of life there, and does a pretty decent job of it. From Rex’s house which somehow looks like every elderly male bachelor’s house ever to the small touches of decoration in many of the pubs (and being a road trip through Australia, there are a lot of pubs), Last Cab to Darwin is a visually sumptuous feast to the eyes. It does leave me wondering when this is supposed to take place though, which might be the intent. On the one hand most of the décor we see looks like it escaped from the 1970s, on the other hand we see the prevalence of mobile phones and glossy flat screen televisions. And the fact that the Northern Territory did enact Euthanasia Laws in the 1990s doesn’t help matters either.
I’d also like to applaud this film for how it handles the rather heavy themes that it brings up. It stands in some contrast to other films I’ve seen recently, such as Fantastic Four (I think it’s time to stop picking on Ruben Guthrie for a while) which use lofty themes like legacies and environmentalism as a crutch. Whereas that particular movie never examined its themes particularly closely or utilized them in an interesting manner, Last Cab to Darwin grapples with the difficult questions it raises adroitly, weaving the ethics of euthanasia and the racist attitudes towards Indigenous Australians present in many rural communities into the fabric of the story itself.
It’s difficult to say whether it’s a perfect examination of such lofty themes, I found myself wondering whether the characterisation of Indigenous communities was more a regurgitation of old stereotypes rather than any kind of meaningful subversion. And I ultimately found the examination of Euthanasia as a meaningful alternative rendered toothless by the ending, but that’s probably as much a reflection of my own feelings on the matter more than any kind of failure on the film’s part.
Ultimately, I can heartily recommend Last Cab to Darwin as a must see for this year. In the slow months between the summer and winter blockbuster season, movies like this keep film buffs like me going. And when it addresses such relevant and topical themes as racism and the right to die with such clarity, a movie can’t help but demand your respect.