Believe It or Not, Physician-Assisted Suicide Is Handled With a Light Touch in “Last Cab to Darwin”

Believe It or Not, Physician-Assisted Suicide Is Handled With a Light Touch in “Last Cab to Darwin” June 6, 2016

Michael Caton is terminally ill taxi driver Rex, in “Last Cab to Darwin”

When I read the premise of Last Cab to Darwin, I was intrigued, but expected a message movie.  In telling the story of a terminally ill taxi driver who traverses the Australian outback to reach a physician with a Kevorkian machine, I anticipated a film that would land squarely in the “for” or “against” camp of physician-assisted suicide.

Happily, Last Cab to Darwin is far more than that.  As a “hero’s journey” film, it gives us four likeable characters who reassess their choices in life.  Firmly situated in contemporary Australia, it looks at the enduring racism that Aborigines suffer from their white compatriots.  And the controversial subject of euthanasia is addressed, but with a light touch.

Last Cab’s lead character, Rex (Michael Caton), is a rough-edged chap, the type who closes the local bar then pops open a bottle of beer for breakfast.  Potbellied, dingy, and taciturn, he enjoys a romance with his Aboriginal neighbor across the street.  Sadly, Rex lacks the courage to love Polly (Ningali Lawford-Wolf) openly, disengaging his hand from hers when a white neighbor appears.

Soon we learn that Rex has metastatic stomach cancer, with a prognosis for only a few months’ survival.  Adamant that he won’t die in a hospital, Rex elects to travel from his small city in New South Wales to the coastal Northern Territory city of Darwin, where he’s learned that a doctor in favor of euthanasia is seeking her first test patient.  Polly is furious with Rex’s choice, so he sets off alone on his terminal ride.

During his 3000 kilometer trek, Rex picks up a couple of passengers.  Tilly is a happy-go-lucky Aboriginal fellow rescued by Rex from a fight, and Julie is a Londoner who’s backpacking her way around the world.  (I’ll add here that none of the actors in Last Cab to Darwin are familiar to me, but they all perform solidly.)

Rex with fellow travelers Tilly (Mark Coles Smith) and Julie (Emma Hamilton)

As it turns out, these three characters are not merely journeying, but are in flight from their skills and attachments.  Rex is fleeing Polly and buddies who care about him.  Tilly (Mark Coles Smith) is evading the wife and child he’s only lightly committed to, and is too timid to exploit the rugby talents that would require him to move away from home for tryouts.  Julie (Emma Hamilton) is burned out and taking an extended break from her nursing career.

Showcasing so much Australian scenery, it’s hard for me to believe that Last Cab to Darwin is based on a stage play.  Under Jeremy Sims’ canny direction, his film puts his sun-drenched locales to good use.  The baked red earth and scrub of the outback made me crave a cold beer almost as much as Rex.  The sea and greenery of Darwin feel refreshing after days in the desert.

Without getting preachy, Sims and his cowriter Reg Cribb also show us the racism that still endures in Australia.  Polly can’t get a beer served to her at the local bar.  Whereas Rex can get a cheap room for a night without ID, no such latitude is extended to Tilly.

Sims and Cribb handle the issue of physician-assisted suicide with a comparable gentleness.  Only once do they reveal their cards with a message-y line of dialogue, commenting how Australian power structures (the government, medical association, and clergy) want to take the power of choice out of individual’s hands.

But this is the exception to the overall tone of Last Cab to Darwin, whose airiness is aided by Australian indie musician Ed Kuepper’s easygoing score.  His laid-back acoustic guitar seamlessly blends with the view outside the windows of Rex’s cab.

Rather than bash its viewers with a ham-fisted message, Last Cab to Darwin is much more interested in developing empathic characters and exploring their struggles.  In the case of Rex, it shows us the psychological tasks inherent to anyone facing the sunset of their life.

Like many folks nearing the end, Rex returns to his source, reflecting on his childhood and his parents, what they accomplished and what they didn’t.  He weighs his own regrets:  his failure to venture outside his small city, the people like Polly that he held at arm’s length.

Rex, sharing a laugh with Polly (Ningali Lawford-Wolf) on his porch
Rex, sharing a laugh with Polly (Ningali Lawford-Wolf) on his porch

In so doing, Rex is given the opportunity to place his affairs in order.  Though well-intentioned and mostly genuine in feel, this does lead to the sole weakness of Last Cab to Darwin, an ending that feels too tidy.

To be sure, there’s a place for message-driven movies on medical futility and end-of-life care that has so many people dying prolonged deaths away from familiar people and surroundings.    However, Last Cab to Darwin is a more affecting film in its refusal to travel down that road.

4 out of 5 stars

(Parents’ guide:  Last Cab to Darwin has not been rated by the MPAA, but has some strong language and brief violence.)

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