Last Cab to Darwin

August 8, 2015
Michael Caton in 'Last Cab to Darwin' (2015)
Michael Caton in 'Last Cab to Darwin' (2015)

When every new Australian movie seems obsessed with death, one might see a story about euthanasia as a step in the right direction. At least it’s a humane death. One could even make a case for Jeremy Sims’s Last Cab to Darwin as a film that salvages a life-affirming message from tragedy.

Michael Caton plays Rex, a cab driver in his late 60s who has spent his entire life in Broken Hill. His household consists of himself and a dog. The dog is called “Dog” because as he later explains, “Rex” was taken. Across the road lives Polly (Ningali Lawford-Wolf) an Aboriginal woman of Rex’s vintage who is his long-term lover, although they like to keep it quiet.

Rex’s intimate circle is completed by John Howard, David Field and Alan Dukes – three mates he meets on a daily basis in the pub. Alone in his loungeroom, Rex spins pop records from the 1970s and makes himself sandwiches of processed meat and tomato sauce.

This routine is upset when Rex learns he has malignant stomach cancer, and probably only three months to live. He intends to keep driving his cab to the bitter end, but when he hears a radio interview with a Dr. Farmer in Darwin who is pioneering a controversial new euthanasia program, he decides to take matters into his own hands.

Without discussing his decision with anyone, Rex loads up the cab and prepares to drive the 1900 kms to Darwin. His mates can hardly believe what he’s doing, while Polly is furious with his stubborn behaviour. Although he leaves her the house, she is mortally offended at his refusal to let her care for him.

The film soon becomes a road movie, with picture-postcard views of the Outback and the tiny communities along the way, such as William Creek, Oodnadatta and Daly Waters. En route Rex hooks up with the young Aboriginal larrikin, Tilly (Mark Coles Smith); and an English backpacker named Julie (Emma Hamilton), who is working as a barmaid. These are his companions when he turns up at Dr. Farmer’s suburban practice, feeling sicker than ever.

To his consternation, Rex finds it is no simple matter to end his life. Although euthanasia was briefly legalised in the Northern Territory, it was so hedged in with legal and medical restrictions the process was a minefield.

Jacki Weaver plays Dr. Farmer as a conscientious GP who needs to do everything by the book. Her caution forces a delay that gives Rex time to think about his life and his relationships. As time ebbs away he begins to ask himself what is really important, and makes a decision.

Although Last Cab to Darwin is based on the true story of Broken Hill cab driver, Max Bell, who sought to die with the assistance of Dr. Philip Nitschke, playwright Ron Cribb has used Bell’s tale as a vehicle for many different themes. As well as a reflection on mortality and the ethical dilemma of euthanasia, the film explores black and white relations in Australia with unusual sensitivity.

The story has its corny moments but Caton’s performance is good enough to overcome the feel-good factor. One would have to be a sociopath not to feel sympathy for this stoic personality driving towards an appointment with death. The dialogue has a convincingly Australian feel: vulgarity and dry humour alternating with grim taciturnity. A lot of work has gone into this script in which every character labours under the knowledge of Rex’s impending doom. Sims and Cribb manage to capture the awkwardness without falling into cliché.

When it comes to the relationship between Rex and Polly, it resembles a battle. Although they are obviously rusted on to each other, there is a sense of taboo about their liaison. Aboriginal people are usually treated as second class citizens in country towns, and Rex feels ashamed of how people would view his romance. For her part, Polly feels angry that Rex would leave her the house but spurn her affections.

Then there is Tilly, the boozing, philandering, sharp-talking drifter. Talented but self-destructive, full of mischief but low on confidence, Tilly is a recognisable type among young indigenous men. To survive in this story he has to be more than a stereotype. If Julie, the British backpacker, is attracted to Tilly, it’s partly because she is free of all the ingrained prejudices that are incubated in remote communities. Having recently watched the even-handed way young French, German and British waitresses treated black and white customers in a bistro in the Pilbara, I began to think this too-good-to-be-true portrait might be more realistic than I’d suspected.

Although Last Cab to Darwin may be morbid in its subject matter, it is a more complete package than almost anything I’ve seen by an Australian director over the past few years. I exempt Mad Max: Fury Road, which is in a class of its own, but for a conventional drama, Jeremy Sims has given us an Australian movie that can be shown around the world and do us proud.

Last Cab to Darwin
Directed by Jeremy Sims,
Written by Ron Cribb & Jeremy Sims
Starring Michael Caton, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, Mark Coles Smith, Jacki Weaver, Emma Hamilton, David Field, John Howard, Alan Dukes, Leah Purcell
Australia, rated M, 124 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 8th August, 2015.