Last Cab to Darwin – What is it to live the fulfilled, examined life? (Film Review)
Last Cab To Darwin is pure triumph of the mcguffin, the made-famous-by-Hitchcock device where an object, goal or desired place is deemed to be the focus of a heroic journey, but reveals itself to be nothing other than the distraction against which a narratives primary purpose is posited. The significance of technique used in a primary film in 2015 in Australia is entirely political – a point Jeremy Sims is able to illuminate by using Reg Cribb’s beautiful 2003 play. It’s the second big screen transition of an Aussie play to film we’ve seen in a month (the first being Brendon Cowell’s very brilliant Ruben Guthrie – which also stars Sims) and the second time a successful Australian play has been adapted to account for an up to date vision of an Australian cultural peculiarity. It’s too soon to mark this a trend, but given Cowell and Sims are contemporary’s (and appear in each others films) a theatre/film critic can’t help but have an exciting July/August in Australia fantasising about some thrilling cultural cross over renaissance period threatening to become an established new wave. Yes yes, two excellent theatre to film transitions does not a new wave make, but given Australia’s current political climate and the broad base of theatrical and artistic talent being culture bashed by the prevailing political institutions, one seeks inspiration wherever one can find it, and Jeremy Sims, Brendon Cowell and their pals are coming up with the goods, mid year in 2015. Bless their little cotton sox.
But back to the mcguffin at the heart of Last Cab to Darwin. In a brilliant reflection on Australian life, Jeremy Sims tweaks Reg Cribb’s great play into the most comprehensive commentary on contemporary Australian politics we’re likely to see for some time. When Max (an always marvellous Michael Caton) is told by his doctors that they weren’t able to remove all the cancer from his body and he has weeks to live, astoundingly it almost occurs as a relief to Max. He is now able to get on with the business of ending his life, and successfully avoid the challenges and difficulties he has been grappling with avoiding for the previous sixty-odd years he has been a cab driver in Broken Hill. This deflection strikes at the very heart of contemporary white Australia and the dreadful complacency in the face of overwhelming wickedness being wrought – not because good people do nothing – but because good people choose a response to their immediate circumstances over an opportunity to give their life meaning beyond their own successful existence. Max’s drive toward the opportunity to euthanize has far more to do with what he drives away from than it has to do with the topic of euthanasia. In fact, that very contentious topic is kept appropriately light weight by all, including Max, with the exception of Dr Nicole Farmer played with the usual consistency of perfection by Jacki Weaver. Dr Farmer is the only character, including Max to take a deliberate stand and dedicate her life to something larger than herself. It is her recognition and subsequence treatment of Max that turns the tide of the film at the pivotal moment from a “last road trip” Aussie larrikin film about the outback into an astounding revelation about what it is to actually L-I-V-E live! Without giving any spoilers, Max was never an adequate experiment for her philosophies, simply because he hadn’t taken any kind of stand to be a part of her political point.
It is this commitment to the deliberate life that Sims so accurately portrays. In fact, the greatest achievement of Max’s life is in his recognition of Polly, his aboriginal girlfriend (Ningali Lawford-Wolf is luminous in this role and a reason to see the film on her own) that he hides from the judgment of white eyes. This is how Australian politics are fought. We are distracted by the plight of one hundred and fifty boat people while more than eleven billion in foreign aid cuts have been wrought by the Australian government since its election in 2013. The entire Rupert Murdoch press system, which started in Australia, is based on the principle of the mcguffin. Conquer the left by division. Distract them with a small-scale immediate injustice, and as they foam at the mouth over it, conduct a large-scale injustice without objection. Max’s death means nothing to anyone, unless he acknowledges Polly publicly, something his euthanasia rescues him from without the burden of guilt, and including the subtext of left-wing awareness. This is the beauty and subtlety behind Sims’ film.
If Last Cab to Darwin has a fault, it is perhaps in its being too clever (lets face it, Michael Caton is always smarter than he appears – not to mention Jeremy Sims) and its importance being buried under the Aussie clichés it seeks to both appropriate and earmark for gentle observational criticism. The Broken Hill life Max leaves is only exciting when Lawford-Wolf is present, otherwise languishing in an established, deliberate mood that can have the unfortunate consequence of immersing viewers in the very relief it seeks to expose. The feel good Aussie larrikenism of Caton is perfect for Sims’ revelations, but cuts slightly too close to the Australian idealised version of itself. In the end, Last Cab to Darwin can be seen to commit the same cinematic crimes it seeks to expose, nurturing Aussies in an ocean of nationalism that buries its points about institutionalised racism and social inequity.
However, none of these problems prevent Last Cab to Darwin from it’s all important observations about what makes a life valuable and even deeper than that, what makes a life one that has been successfully lived. As I said in my opening paragraph, Ruben Guthrie and Last Cab To Darwin are (hopefully) a new dawn of Australian cinema that seeks to expose a self medicating nation enthralled with their own special brand of bull shit that prevents the acceptance of responsibility beyond one’s own success. Fingers crossed.