A sense of belonging is an intrinsic part of the human experience.
Not everyone wants to admit it of course with many people, for a variety of reasons, doing their best to keep the rest of humanity at bay by fair means and foul.
One such person, Rex (Michael Caton), an emotionally-subdued older cab driver in Broken Hill, is the beating heart and soul of Jeremy Sims’ beautifully-realised, touchingly funny film The Last Cab to Darwin.
Though he is surrounded by relationships rich and deep – not that he, or those with whom he is in close regular contact such as his mates at the pub, or his feisty neighbour Polly (Ningali Lawford-Wolf) would ever dare to describe them as such – he sets off alone to Darwin in his beloved taxi one day to avail himself of the NT’s newly-legislated euthanasia laws, acutely aware time is perilously short after his doctors hand him a cancer prognosis giving him three all too short months to live.
Implacably opposed to dying in a hospital, for reasons that are movingly revealed later in the film, he is determined to see out life on his own terms, becoming quickly convinced that Dr. Nicole Farmer (Jacki Weaver), a euthanasia campaigner in Darwin, is his angel of mercy, his ticket to a quick, hospital-free death.
Before, during and after his extraordinary 3000 km drive to Darwin, he tells anyone who will listen that he is alone, no friends or family, no bonds; just him, his cab and a “don’t-think-about-it-or-I-might-not-do-it” determination to beat death at its own game.
His unwillingness to brook the possibility of any other approach to seeing out his last few days is both amusingly brave, and distressingly sad, particularly since it becomes readily apparent very early on that Rex is surrounded by people who love and care for him, if only he would let them near.
Quite why he won’t let anyone near is not readily apparent at first.
While he is hardly a garrulous extrovert about town, he is sociable enough in his own way, meeting with his mates in the pub for drinks each night and sharing a pot of tea early each morning with his neighbour across the road, Polly, with whom he is love (though he refuses to admit that for much of the film’s running time) and with whom he is closer than either of them would care to admit.
He maintains his arm’s distance approach to humanity as a whole – an ironic stance given his chosen profession but one which again makes sense when you hear about his unhappy childhood – even on the road, only grudgingly taking on audaciously cheeky Tilly (Mark Coles Smith), and disillusioned British nurse Julie (Emma Hamilton) as passengers when events mandate he can’t leave them behind.
Though he is in some ways the original grumpy old man with the heart of gold, his resolute approach to not getting close to anybody is maintained throughout the trip to Darwin, Sims and co-writer Reg Cribb wisely not forcing on his character some sort of Road to Damascus moment that wouldn’t have rung true.
That he does soften somewhat towards the end makes sense in the wider, well told narrative context of the film, the direct result of realising, when the opportunity to take his life is finally well at hand, that he still has some living left to do, and like death, wants to do it on his own terms.
The relationships in the film, particularly with Rex who, again ironically given his diffidence to human interaction, is the emotional hub around which everyone revolves, are uniformly believable and authentic, brought to life by a stellar cast, all of whom without exception, bring forth a real sense that these people matter, and matter deeply, to each other (and that they all have their own long put off issues to deal with).
It’s the key to many of the intense scenes working as well as they do, as is the way the screenplay pleasingly juxtaposes the reality of death, loss and separation with a larrikin black humour that is only really absent in the most emotionally-searing of moments such as when Julie and Rex say their final goodbyes and in the nuanced, subtlely-wrought and immensely-touching closing scene with Polly and Rex.
Caton is the real joy in Last Cab of Darwin, ably and without fuss giving us insight into a man who discovers more about himself, and what he really wants in his final days than he has in all the years leading up to it when he never left Broken Hill or successfully escaped the emotional skeletons in the closet haunting his every move, both of which happen on the great pilgrimage to Darwin.
That Sims and Cribb manage to make some pretty profound, deeply affecting observations about life, living and the general exercise of humanity without once coming across as cloying or manipulative is impressive, as is the way the copious use of humour bolsters rather than detracts from the very real drama in play.
Set against the sweeping backdrop of the Australian Outback, Last Cab to Darwin is a down to earth, insightful, funny and heartwarming musing on the things that really matter in life, and how we often only truly appreciate them when they’re about to disappear from our grasp for good.