Last Cab to Darwin” is an extraordinary character study, following an Australian man who, with only a short time left before he succumbs to cancer, sets out on a lengthy road trip to Darwin, a town where euthanasia has, controversially, just been made legal. Like a meandering cross-country drive full of unexpected discoveries, this film is so satisfying because it takes its time to get where it’s going, but never loses sight of its powerful story. The Crescent Theater is bringing us this delightful surprise of a film, which is opening on very few screens in the United States this week.
At the center of the film is Australian actor Michael Caton as Rex, the irascible codger who decides to drive his cab 3,000 kilometers to end his life on his own terms, instead of in the hospital. If it was an American film, this role would most likely be played by Jack Nicholson, or maybe, in a few years, Bill Murray. However, seeing an unknown (to me) actor made Rex an entirely transporting, rather than formulaic, character. He is compelling from the first scene and only grows more so as the film unfolds.
The pace of the film contributes to its amazing sense of authenticity. Taking time to build the characters and relationships before Rex even leaves on his journey seems like something most U.S.-made films would not do. Rex’s secret, casual love affair with his neighbor Polly is instantly revealed to the viewer, yet carefully depicted in such a way that we are always learning more about them, and this builds the emotional resonance.
Despite the protests of his friends, which amount to a few working-class guys hanging out in a bar — but who are also depicted carefully, and fully — Rex contacts the female physician (Jacki Weaver) making headlines with her newly legalized euthanasia machine. Weaver gives her character plenty of warmth and humanity, balancing her grim on-screen duties.
As Rex makes his long drive to Darwin, he picks up a few companions: an indigenous drifter and, conveniently, a nurse turned bartender. As Rex’s condition deteriorates, his companions become more and more important.
It is not just the Australian location that sets this film apart from our more homegrown varieties, although its many rural sights are in themselves a glorious travelogue. The very essence of this film feels foreign, in the best possible way, and it’s amazing how refreshing a break from our familiar movie stars can be.
So many films now are sequels, continuing chapters within familiar “universes” that we see the same tried-and-true famous faces over and over. No matter how much we enjoy them, the saturation is extreme, and I highly recommend taking a road trip like “Last Cab to Darwin,” an exploration into wondrously unknown parts of the world, where even familiar aspects of our humanity are rendered vividly new when we have the pleasure of making the acquaintance of unmet characters.
“Last Cab to Darwin” opens exclusively at the Crescent Theater July 1.