It’s 6 p.m., and in six hours — give or take a couple of seconds — the world will come to an end. That’s the gist of “Last Night.” And while it might appear to be a grim subject for a movie, writer-helmer Don McKellar’s bittersweet pic is funny, heart-wrenching and life-affirming. The modestly produced first feature has offbeat appeal that will translate well for specialized play globally and strong sales in ancillary revenue streams.
Produced as part of a 12-segment Arte series on the year 2000 as seen by a selection of international filmmakers, McKellar’s take is the most cataclysmic. Set in Toronto, it begins with a matter-of-fact radio voice broadcasting the hour and foretelling the countdown to doom.
McKellar casts himself as Patrick, an architect who plans to meet the end alone, quietly, following a perforce family dinner. The other character strands in the interwoven scenario involve Sandra (Sandra Oh), a woman attempting to get across town for a suicide pact with her husband, Duncan (David Cronenberg), a diligent exec with the gas company; Craig (Callum Keith Rennie), who’s pursuing a laundry list of sexual conquests; and Donna (Tracy Wright), Duncan’s assistant, who’s trying to screw up her courage and show her true colors before the final fade. Each will cross paths with at least one of the others and change the course of one another’s final hours.
The film shrewdly focuses on the principals, providing only the sketchiest of details on the impending tragedy. Presumably the Earth is being sucked into the sun’s orbit, which has created unending daylight for weeks.
The central confrontation involves the quietly resolved Patrick getting drawn into Sandra’s hysterical predicament. She approaches him on the street, asking to use his telephone after her car is looted and trashed. He reluctantly allows her into his apartment and sets the wheels in motion for an unexpected relationship.
Without forcing the point, the script examines how someone who has withdrawn is forced to feel again. With the stakes higher than ever, the goal for most of the characters is that they exit with their humanity.
Maintaining a narrow focus, “Last Night” effectively covers the options one would consider when faced with the apocalyptic question, What would you do if the world ended tomorrow? — be with a loved one, fulfill a dream, have the last laugh or finally see justice done.
The underlying content is serious drama, but McKellar is a keen observer of human foibles and a social satirist who understands how to leaven the subject and provide the laugh before the powerful emotional moment. He has sly fun with everything from the family unit to cell phones, ’60s folk music and pedestrian rage.
The ensemble cast is first-rate including McKellar, whose wired Everyman is reminiscent of the silent clowns. Oh may be Canada’s most extraordinary young actress, and Genevieve Bujold, as Patrick and Craig’s high school French teacher, who has a last fling with the latter, is the picture of dignity in the face of impossible circumstances.
Tech credits are admittedly uneven. McKellar gets a lot of mileage from suggestions of civil disobedience and mayhem in the streets, but his interior sets come across as garish, suffused with a red hue that’s more jarring than evocative. Pic has an inspired, if limited, song score, and overall its bumps are largely smoothed over by the adroit editing of Reginald Harkema.