Offing oneself has never been more winning than it is in Last Cab to Darwin, director Jeremy Sims’ (Beneath Hill 60) wryly comic tale of a grizzled taxi driver dying of cancer who drives from Broken Hill to Darwin — roughly Tennessee to Montana — in order to legally end his life via lethal injection. Adapted from Reg Cribb’s stage play of the same name, the film shows little trace of its theatrical origins, not least because it consists of one ravishing shot of the blood-orange outback after another, and Sims wrings gentle pleasures from this most unlikely of subjects.
Michael Caton (beloved on these shores for his role in The Castle, an early showcase for the comic chops, since largely dormant, of Eric Bana) stars as Rex, who’s never left the mining town of Broken Hill. When he’s not picking up fares he spends his time draining schooners with his best mates — Simmo (John Howard), Col (Alan Dukes) and Dougie (David Field) — whose cheerful toast says it all: “Here’s to us, f— the rest.” Then there’s Polly (Ningali Lawford-Wolf, wonderfully irascible), the aboriginal woman who lives across the road and occasionally shares his bed. Rex’s dog, Dog, looks on contentedly as the pair hold hands over a morning cuppa on the porch, though Rex pulls his hand away quickly when his neighbor emerges from next door.
Unbeknownst to his pals and Polly, Rex has three months to live. His diagnosis happily coincides, in the way of these things, with Dougie’s discovery of a newspaper article about the legalization of euthanasia in the Territory — “they did that in Broken Hill there’d be no bastards left!,” says Dougie. Rex promptly decides to jump in his taxi and drive straight across the desert to the clinic run by Dr. Farmer (Jacki Weaver with a black helmet of hair). He interrupts a radio interview she’s conducting to tell her he’s on his way. She tells him to keep his fluids up, so Rex buys a six-pack and sets off.
Sims and playwright Cribb (who also wrote Sims’ debut feature, Last Train to Freo) fashioned their story out of two real ones from the 90’s. Last Cab seems to be set then, too; the only time we see a mobile phone is in the hands of a young FIFO miner in the back of Rex’s cab, who complains about his lack of reception and is given appropriately short shrift from Rex. Caton is an endearingly unpretentious star: with his formidable beer belly and dry, laconic mien, expect Robert Duvall in the remake.
After his windscreen is smashed, Rex pulls off the road alongside Tilly (Mark Coles Smith), an indigenous man with a cowboy hat, a million-dollar smile and endless swagger — all hips and dimples, a dead ringer for Brad Pitt’s hustler in Thelma and Louise. Coles Smith is superb as the charming Tilly, whose front masks gnawing disappointment. They’re joined on this cross-country jamboree by Julie (Emma Hamilton, BBC’s The Musketeers), a nurse from London moonlighting as a barmaid in the outback, who quits to take care of Rex.
Inevitably the trek is episodic, but Steve Arnold’s dusky photography and the good-natured sniping between the monosyllabic Rex and the motormouth Tilly keep it buoyant. Once they’ve arrived at Dr. Farmer’s clinic, though, the characters (and the film) find themselves in a holding pattern. Farmer sets about gathering the checks they need to proceed: principally, a signature from a psychiatrist signing off on Rex’s soundness of mind. After all that forward movement, Rex and co. must sit and wait, amid much phone slamming from Weaver.
Last Cab to Darwin is no polemic, but its attitude towards euthanasia is oblique, chiefly because Farmer, the euthanasia advocate, is so unsympathetic. Weaver’s glassy-eyed stare, so effective in Animal Kingdom, is present here, too; so convincing on a gangster matriarch, it seems a curious fit for a right-to-die campaigner. Increasingly the film positions Farmer as a grasper, out to advance her cause but with little concern for Rex. As he says himself: “Why do I get the feeling that woman wants me dead?”
The film never becomes morbid, though, which is both its strength and weakness. The real man on which Rex is partially based had to wear a catheter and couldn’t embrace another person without risking injury. Rex endures no ugly side effects — it’s not that kind of film. Without them, though, his reason for ending his life prematurely is less obvious. And of course that’s the idea, paving the way for Rex’s eleventh-hour realization of who and what really matters. Ed Kuepper’s guitar-heavy score sees out the sun, and is perhaps a touch over-present in a film that in most other departments exhibits an admirably light touch.
Production Companies: Pork Chop Productions
Cast: Michael Caton, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, Mark Coles Smith, Emma Hamilton, David Field, John Howard, Alan Dukes, Jacki Weaver
Director: Jeremy Sims
Writers: Reg Cribb, Jeremy Sims
Producers: Greg Duffy, Lisa Duff, Jeremy Sims
Executive Producers: Ned Lander, Andrew Myer, Edward Simpson, Mark Nelson, Michael Burton, Ian Darling, Jon Adgemis, Prue MacLeod, Chris Cuffe, Natasha Cuffe
Director of Photography: Steve Arnold
Production Designer: Clayton Jauncey
Costume Designer: Jane Johnston
Editor: Marcus D’Arcy
Sound Designer: Simon Lister
Composer: Ed Kuepper
Casting Director: Kirsty McGregor
No rating, 123 minutes