LAST CAB TO DARWIN. Starring: Michael Caton, Mark Coles Smith, Emma Hamilton, Ningali Lawford, and Jacki Weaver. Directed by Jeremy Sims. Rated M (Coarse language and mature themes). 124 min.
This Australian movie stars Michael Caton, who took the lead role in the iconic "The Castle" (1997). It tells the story of a lonely taxi-driver, who is diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, and who is told that he has no more than three months to live.
It is a drama-comedy based on a 2003 stage play of the same name written by Reg Cribb, who co-wrote the movie with its Director, Jeremy Sims. It is based on the true story of what happened to Max Bell, a taxi driver from Broken Hill, who died in 1996, age 66.
Rex (Michael Caton) takes the role of Max Bell who drove his cab from Broken Hill to Darwin to die. Rex decides to make contact with Dr. Farmer (Jacki Weaver), who heads a voluntary euthanasia program in Darwin, a program actually enacted in the Northern Territory briefly in the mid-90's. As Rex drives to her, Dr. Farmer senses Rex's significance for her program, and advertises his coming, highlighting for the viewer the issue of political advocacy of controversial moral causes.
Rex is a determined, self-deprecating man, who chooses to travel for what he thinks is the last time through his native land, and he meets a host of interesting characters along the way. Somewhat reluctantly, he manages to pick up two companion travellers. One is an indigenous young drifter, Tilly (Mark Coles Smith), who provides the opportunity for the movie to explore racist attitudes about how indigenous people are treated in outback Australia. The other is Julie (Emma Hamilton), a young woman backpacker-nurse, who forms a close supportive attachment to Rex as his journey continues. She provides the means for Rex to discover his true feelings for his Indigenous love, Polly (Ningali Lawford), who regularly fights with him back in Broken Hill, but who loves him deeply. Polly lives opposite Rex as his neighbour, and is the kind of person, who screams abuse at him for putting his garbage in her bin, before she goes inside to affectionately make him a cup of tea.
Whilst the basic theme of this movie is voluntary euthanasia, the film tackles a broad range of issues in a dramatic-humorous way. The film has great one-liners and scenarios involving a host of recognisable Aussie characters. Told by Dr. Farmer to keep his fluids up whilst travelling to her, for instance, Max makes sure he has a six-pack of beer on hand along the way. Essentially, this is a moving story of a dying man who lives alone among a small network of friends. When Max decides to drive to Dr. Farmer, he makes a decision to leave his friends behind, including Polly, and his beloved "Dog" (named "dog", because "the name Rex was taken"). The film is about searching for the meaning of life in the face of death. It is an epic Australian road movie through outback, scenic Australia, and it is about finding love and friendship through facing mortality.
The movie has been scripted broadly to soften the emotional load of its major theme.
Surprisingly, the film doesn't make a judgement about euthanasia, but tackles its main theme by stimulating debate about the meaning of life as seen through the experiences of a dying man. In many respects, it is a film about discovering how to love, rather than discovering how to die, and it looks at the issue of voluntary euthanasia at a personal level. But it also explores racism in the Australian outback, and the meaning of Australian mate-ship. It tells us (truthfully), for instance, that mate-ship frequently provides personal support without pressure to talk about things that really matter. Rex's friends back home miss him, but Jeremy Sims, who directs the movie, presents them as liking their drinking together in a pub just that little bit more.
The film is directed humanely and warmly, and it makes excellent use of authentic locations, showing us glorious outback scenery on Rex's journey up North. Its photography captures compellingly the isolation of rural living in outback Australia, and Caton's grasp of the character of Rex is exceptional. This is an entertaining, enjoyable, warm, and culturally sensitive movie about a range of complex issues, not just euthanasia. It is not a truly great Australian movie, but it is one well worth seeing.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released August 6th., 2015