Neither the Cancer Film nor the Road Trip Movie are among my favorite genres, so combining them wasn’t likely to produce a film I have much patience with.
But Last Cab to Darwin (★★★) defies the odds by defying many of the conventions. It throws in a hot button political issue–the right to die–and yet somehow manages to not sink under the weight of so many heavy themes.
Michael Caton anchors the film as Rex, a cab driver diagnosed to be in the final stage of cancer. Eschewing the prospect of hospice care–and against the obvious wishes of Polly (Ningali Lawford-Wolf), the closest thing he has to a soul mate–he resolves to make a 3,000 mile cab drive to Darwin to look up a doctor with a suicide machine. (At the time the film is set, assisted-suicide is nominally legal in Darwin’s territory but not in the rest of Australia.) Of course he encounters people and circumstances along the way that complicate what never was a black and white decision to begin with. (Rex’s assurance to the doctor that he has no family is truthful, but he clearly has an attachment to Polly.)
Darwin‘s saving grace is that it embeds the political arguments about the right to die within a personal story. And unlike in advocacy films such as God’s Not Dead or Do You Believe?, personalizing the political allows it to embrace ambiguity and equivocation. Proponents of either side of the hot button issue could argue that elements of Rex’s story support their stance…and they would be right. If you are looking for a film that will highlight one side of the debate while eliding the troublesome points that the other side makes, then Darwin isn’t for you. Perhaps because I was expecting it to be unequivocally pro-suicide, I was actually pleased that it recognized that any stance on this issue has problematic implications. Your mileage may vary, especially if you weary of “nobody is wrong” brands of cultural relativism or think the movie leans too far in one direction, particularly at its end.
Richard Swanson’s editorial/review (warning: spoilers), enumerates several important differences between the cinematic Rex and the man upon whom this “true story” is based. I teach literature for a living, so I understand dramatic license, particularly for people who have voluntarily become public figures. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve become much more ambivalent about works of art that substantively alter aspects of a real person’s life. At what point does an experience belong to the artist and not to the person who lived it? After the latter has passed away? I’m not sure I have an easy answer.
Last Cab to Darwin opens June 10 in New York City, followed by theatrical screenings in select cities. Viewers outside of major film distribution centers should keep eyes open for an eventual DVD release from First Run Features.
Also recommended: Andrew Spitznas reviews the film at Secular Cinephile.