'Last Cab to Darwin'
Death and comedy go together like… well, they typically don’t. But when it happens, the results can be pretty interesting. ‘Last Cab to Darwin’ deftly mixes death and laughs, not in a bang-bang way, more in a contemplative “Inching towards the end” kind of way.
It’s a tricky balancing act that the filmmakers don’t always achieve. However, when ‘Last Cab to Darwin’ works it’s a beautiful and melancholy meditation on morality laced with just enough humor to avoid being as dour as it sounds. When it doesn’t work, it can feel a bit contrived. Still, the fact that this thing works at all is kind of amazing.
Based on a play by Reg Cribb (who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Jeremy Sims), the story follows Michael Caton as a cab driver named Rex. He’s never left his hometown. He hangs out with the same group of lovable dummies he’s always known, gets drunk in the same pub every night, and typically ends the evening by snacking on spam and listening to records. He’s also secretly been dating his lovably brash neighbor Polly (Ningali Lawford) for years, but doesn’t dare tell anyone because she’s Aboriginal and… you know, regional racism.
Unfortunately, Rex has terminal cancer. Rather than suffer through the whole ordeal, he’d prefer to accept some euthanasia from a doctor (Jacki Weaver) who announced she’s attempting to launch a new legal service on the radio. He calls in to volunteer to be her test subject and then drives across the country for the first time to meet his maker. This being a road movie, he obviously makes friends along the way. In this case, they’re specifically a troubled young man with a zest for life and self-destruction (Mark Coles Smith) and a British nurse working in an Outback pub (Emma Hamilton). It goes without saying that lessons are learned between the laughs.
The first half of ‘Last Cab to Darwin’ is by far the best. Sims and Cribb have a keen eye for detail and a knack for creating hilariously real background Australian life. There’s a jovial naturalism to all the performances, particularly from Ningali Lawford, who’s quite a find. Michael Caton is by far the film’s greatest strength. Best known for his work in the Aussie deadpan comedy classic ‘The Castle’, the guy has a gift for getting the most out of the tiniest of inflections. His stoic face and grunts of grief sum up the character in an instant. There’s never a moment when his inner pain isn’t clear and yet he remains a quiet enigma. It’s a remarkable performance both hilarious and distraught that nails the tone and meaning of the movie better than the filmmakers manage around him.
Director Sims has the right sense of bleak and understated humor for the material. This is a comedy, but with subject matter a little too harsh to devolve into cloying laughs. The film is subtle and relatable at its best, with a fondness for grand landscapes and kooky backroad production design to keep things visual and cinematic.
Unfortunately, as the movie wears on, the deft mixture of comedy and drama starts to slip. Road movie conventions suck the story outside of reality, especially when the key supporting characters arrive on the scene. Things get a little contrived to prove a point, particularly when Rex just happens to meet a British nurse willing to leave her job to care for a stranger in his dying days. There are some eye-roll moments and the conversations about the benefits and drawbacks of euthanasia turn didactic, with Jacki Weaver’s doctor in particular feeling more like a spokesperson for the issue than an actual character.
It’s a shame to see ‘Last Cab to Darwin’ turn so melodramatic and distressingly predictable as it slides into its third act, but thankfully it rights itself for a moving finale that’s earns teardrops rather than forcing them. Overall, it’s a sweet and funny little feature about dark subject matter that finds the right comedic tone to deal with death in a manner that’s oddly not depressing. This is a moving little indie worth seeking out despite its imperfections. Merely making something that works this well is quite difficult given the themes, and it’s nice to see the movie slip out into international distribution rather than vanishing into obscurity.