Believe or not, the story of Australian film “Last Cab to Darwin” was really inspired by a real-life story associated with the first legalization of euthanasia in the world. In 1995, euthanasia was legalized in the Northern Territory of Australia, and it was naturally followed by lots of controversies until the law was eventually nullified in 1997. During that time, an old sick cab driver named Max Bell actively pursued his chance for euthanasia in a dramatic way as reflected in the movie, and his story later inspired the stage play of the same name which the movie is based on.
In the beginning, we look around the mundane daily life of Rex McRae (Michael Caton), a cab driver who has spent his whole life in Broken Hill, a rural town located in the Southern Territory of Australia. Without any close relative, this aging loner lives alone in his small house with a dog, but his life is not that terribly lonely at least. When he is not working, he usually spends time with his three drinking buddies at a local bar, and he has also been in a close relationship with Polly (Ningali Lawford), a brash middle-aged Aboriginal lady living in a house right across from Rex’s house.
On one day, Rex receives a bad news. When he goes to a local hospital for his recent stomach problem, it turns out he has a terminal stomach cancer, and he is told that he has only three months to live even under the best circumstance. After hearing about the legalization of euthanasia in the Northern Territory, he decides to drive to its capital city Darwin for meeting Dr. Farmer (Jacki Weaver), the leading advocate of this euthanasia law. Although the distance between Broken Hill and Darwin is no less than 1,900 miles (around 3,000 km), he is not daunted by that at all, and he soon embarks on what may be the last journey in his life.
As following his journey, the movie takes a familiar route which has already been taken by many other road movies. As Rex drives his cab along the road, the movie often captures wide, awesome shots of barren landscapes, and the cinematographer Steve Arnold did a commendable job of evoking the dry, dusty, and distinctive ambience of Australian outback regions on the screen. At one point, Rex comes across a bizarre tourist attraction which seems to come right out of Cormac McCarthy novel, and we cannot help but look at this site with curiosity while horrified by its sheer morbidity.
And he encounters two different people by coincidence. When he stops by a shabby small town for replacing the broken windshield of his cab, he meets Tilly (Mark Coles Smith), an Aboriginal lad who once had a chance to join the Australian Football league but has been stuck in his aimlessly drifting life. This jolly guy is not exactly someone you can rely on, but he eventually joins Rex’s journey, and then they are joined by Julie (Emma Hamilton), a young British bar employee whose particular set of professional skills comes handy when Rex’s health becomes more deteriorated than before.
As they are getting closer to their destination, the movie ironically becomes less focused as its increasingly scattershot narrative frequently shifts itself between different tones and subjects. As Tilly reveals despair and frustration behind his carefree attitude, the movie seems to attempt a serious look into racial/social matters, but then it jumps onto less serious things including the growing relationship between Tilly and Julie, which does not have much future especially after Rex tells Julie one thing about Tilly’s personal status.
I was also disappointed with how the movie deals with its thought-provoking main subject. During its third act, the movie hesitates to take any forward step as Rex is waiting for the legal permission of his euthanasia, and Dr. Farmer is broadly depicted as a doctor who seems to be occupied more with legality and public opinion than human need. The finale feels like a cop-out to avoid difficult questions which would be arisen from Rex’s situation, and I was not surprised to learn later that the real-life story behind the film was far less rosy compared to its fictional counterpart.
Anyway, “Last Cab to Darwin” is mostly fine as a road movie, and Sims and his crew did a nice job of transferring the original stage play to the screen without any stagy impression. Although I am not so sure about whether the movie works as well as intended, the adapted screenplay by the director Jeremy Sims and his co-writer Reg Cribb, who wrote the original stage play, surely gives a wonderful opportunity to the lead actor Michael Caton. Caton effortlessly embodies his character right from his first scene, and his engaging performance ably carries the film even while its plot stumbles or trudges. Although their respective supporting roles are not fully developed, Emma Hamilton, Mark Coles Smith, Jacki Weaver acquit themselves well through their own presence, and Ningali Lawford is excellent as a feisty woman who wants far more than small decent gestures of care and affection from a man she has loved for many years. Whenever she and Caton appear together on the screen, we can always sense a long history between Rex and Polly, and I think the movie would work better if the story focused more on their interesting human relationship.
As I felt reservation and dissatisfaction at the end of the film, my mind went back to a couple of better films associated with euthanasia. While Barry Levinson’s HBO TV movie “You Don’t Know Jack” (2010) is more thoughtful and powerful, Denys Arcand’s Oscar-winning film “The Barbarian Invasions” (2003) is more humorous and touching, and both of them are not afraid of stepping forward with their common subject. Of course, I do not mind life-affirming moments, but “Last Cab to Darwin” only scratches the surface as sidestepping that hard inevitability of life and death, and it ultimately feels like a mild diversion compared to these two aforementioned films.