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July 8, 2016

Last Cab to Darwin follows an Australian man driving towards his final destination


Chris Knight / National Post

As a kernel for fiction, euthanasia is a robust and fruitful starting point. It’s difficult not to feel strongly on the topic, yet easy to empathize with the protagonist forced to tackle the question directly, even if we remain convinced we might choose a different path. (But who knows until you’re up against it?)

Last Cab to Darwin, based on the 2003 play by Reg Cribb, takes us back to the early days of the modern assisted-dying debate. In 1996, Australia’s Northern Territory became the first jurisdiction on Earth to legally sanction assisted suicide. (It repealed the law less than a year later, and the practice remains illegal in Australia today.)

A cab driver named Rex, played by Michael Caton – picture Geoffrey Rush’s older, less-kempt brother – has just been told he has three months to live when he hears (coincidence alert!) of the new legislation at his local pub. In actor-turned-director Jeremy Sims’ vision, Oz is a land of rough-but-friendly watering holes separated by vast swaths of desert.

Rex lives (and will soon die) in the southern town of Broken Hill, but decides to drive the 3,000 kilometres north to Darwin to become the first assisted suicide. The practice’s proponent (Jacki Weaver) is eager – perhaps a little too eager? – to help, and advises him to remain hydrated on the journey. Rex responds by stocking his yellow station wagon with a six-pack of Brumby Ale.

Looking for someone to repair a broken windshield, he ends up picking up the smooth-talking Tilly (aboriginal actor Mark Coles Smith), who is also headed north with dreams of starting a football career. Thus does the euthanasia movie meet the buddy/road movie, a pairing actually encountered once before in Goodbye Solo, although in that case it was the passenger wanting to end it.

Rex claims to have no family, but he leaves behind a grumpy neighbour (Ningali Lawford-Wolf) who is clearly the love of his late life. He also has a dog that he named Dog because, as he explains gruffly, “Rex was taken.”

Gorgeous cinematography from Steve Arnold captures the otherworldly beauty of the Outback as Rex and Tilly bisect the continent. There are sunsets and vistas stunning enough to make a suicidal man think twice; not to mention a few signs, like the literal one at the side of the highway, declaring that all roads are open.

But Sims isn’t trying to preach here. Last Cab to Darwin is in fact based on the stories of two terminally ill men who sought the treatment; one of them ultimately went through with it and one did not. Both are long dead now, but the film makes the gentle suggestion that what matters more than how you choose to go is what you do in the meantime.