Since creating one of Australia’s most beloved movie characters in The Castle’s laconic family matriarch Darrell Kerrigan back in 1997, Michael Caton has amassed a broad body of work in movies and television and he draws upon his wealth of experience to deliver an emotionally-charged performance as Rex McRae, a man with terminal cancer desperate to die with dignity. Whilst Caton has spent considerable time mired in television soap opera of late, his return to the big screen comes via an adaptation of a stage play that traverses multiple genres – comedy, romance, drama, road movie and political polemic – and somehow manages to bring all these elements together with great effect. Director Jeremy Sims, who also helmed the theatre production, has crafted a film that will likely unleash a full range of emotions in viewers, from joy to sadness to anger and frustration as Rex and his supporting players traverse the minefield of inequity, bureaucracy and populist politics that is contemporary Australia.
Given his last two big screen outings were the dreadful Strange Bedfellows and the equally dire The Animal, it is great so see Caton back on the big screen in a role of substance as somebody who finds himself the unwitting pin-up boy for those advocating the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia. Having spent his entire life in the New South Wales outpost of Broken Hill, where he lives alone and works as a cab driver, Rex learns of a push by a Northern Territory doctor to secure approval for a ‘suicide machine’ that would enable the terminally ill to facilitate their own death and avoid the humiliation of hospitalisation and around-the-clock palliative care. Although Rex has a girlfriend, Polly (Ningali Lawford), who lives in the house across the street and a group of drinking buddies, he has always maintained his independence and doesn’t share the news of his terminal diagnosis with them. Desperate to die with dignity, Rex sets forth on a 3000km road trip to Darwin, collecting a couple of companions along the way in Tilly (Mark Coles Smith), a talented but self-destructive young Indigenous man and Julie (Emma Hamilton), an English nurse on a backpacking holiday. This is a journey filled with moments of hilarity, hostility and heartbreak as friendships are formed and the trio become a blended family of sorts.
Of course, upon reaching Darwin, everything is not what it seems and Rex is forced to fight for the right to end his life, all the while dealing with a self-serving Dr Farmer (Jacki Weaver) and the realisation of what (who) he has left behind and the broader impact of his decision. Whilst Australia’s antiquated laws around euthanasia are obviously under the microscope here, Sims (Last Train to Freo, Beneath Hill 60) is far from heavy-handed in his approach and leaves it to the audience to make up their own mind. Through the experiences of Polly (who is not allowed to drink in the same Broken Hill bar that Rex frequents) and Tilly (a talented footballer battling to overcome his demons and find his place in the world) we are also reminded of the ongoing hardships and discrimination still being experienced by Aboriginal people in Australia.
Whilst Caton is extraordinarily subtle and naturalistic in his performance and carries the considerable weight of Rex’s plight on his shoulders with aplomb, the supporting cast are also uniformly excellent. Lawford (Rabbit-Proof Fence, Bran Nue Dae) is terrific fun as the feisty Polly, whose frustration at Rex is only outweighed by her love for him, while both Coles Smith and Hamilton are also fabulous and seem destined for much bigger things. Weaver’s Dr Farmer is the least likeable of the characters, with any empathy for Rex’s plight often being overwhelmed by her determination to get her message across. The likes of David Field, John Howard, Alan Dukes and Leah Purcell also feature, as does Brendan Cowell in a brief cameo. Whilst the screenplay, written by Sims with Reg Cribb (who penned the play inspired by the real-life journey of Max Bell), veers towards melodrama at times, Last Cab to Darwin paints a vivid portrait of outback life without shying away from the uglier elements and ultimately emerges as another example of high quality Australian filmmaking.