There is a certain kind of film, rare in the best of times, that exudes a distinct creative concentration, a precisely measured marinade of character and story that suggests an extended gestation period of forethought and planning. Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy” is such a film, and so is George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Harnessing the intimate scale of the former and the root cultural vibe of the latter (minus the extreme speed and transplanted location), co-writer and director Jeremy Sims’ “Last Cab to Darwin” tells the moving tale of a dying taxi driver and his cross-country quest to receive the voluntary euthanasia process enacted for a brief period of time in a single Australian state in the mid-1990s (it is now illegal across the land). Fests will line up at the rank to hail this “Cab,” with older-skewing theatrical success a fare bet.
An aging hometown loner who’s driven a taxi for most of his adult life, Rex Macrae (Michael Caton) lives alone with his vinyl records in the shadow of the mines that are the lifeblood of Broken Hill. Six hundred eighty-four miles west of Sydney and hard on the border of South Australia, the picturesque town is also, tangentially, a stone’s throw from the sites used for “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.”
Rex’s circle of mates is miniscule, composed primarily of three “tradies,” or tradesmen (veteran character actors David Field, John Howard and Alan Dukes), with whom he gets routinely but somehow unenthusiastically pissed at the local pub. And then there’s Polly (Ningali Lawford-Wolf), Rex’s indigenous neighbour directly across the street. Though the two are initially abrasive with one another, it’s quickly revealed that they are longtime occasional lovers who surreptitiously hold hands on the front veranda whilst sipping beers.
At about the same time he learns his stomach cancer leaves him a limited time to live, he hears a Dr. Farmer (Jacki Weaver) on the radio tell of a voluntary euthanasia program she’s attempting to have legalized for trials. Thinking he’ll end his days on his own terms, Rex decides to find the medico without telling anyone. Problem is, Farmer’s in the Northern Territory capital of Darwin, some 1,900 miles driving distance due north — and Rex has never been out of Broken Hill.
So off he goes, leaving his house to an upset but resolute Polly, who promptly fills it with her own extended family. Along the way, he picks up the smart but rudderless young indigenous drifter Tilly (Mark Coles Smith) and English nurse-turned-backpacker Julie (Emma Hamilton). Their adventures together, as well as what Rex learns from Dr. Farmer, the legal system and his own heart, lead him to a decision that surprises even himself.
As much about an expiring way of life as the controversial decision of a terminally ill man, the film also raises thoughtfully contemporary — and in Australia, particularly provocative — questions about the nature of mateship, community and friendship in an unforced, organic way that belies the film’s longtime roots as a stage play. That work, in turn, sprung from a true-life tale that is more or less replicated here.
Wisely, director Sims and original scenarist Cribb decided the story cried out for authentic locations. Thus, Reg — and the curious viewer — are treated to the natural beauty, extraordinary isolation and rural lifestyles of such bush towns and locations as Marree, William Creek, Oodnadatta, Alice Springs, Daly Waters and others along the route.
The material was conceived with veterans Caton (“The Castle”), original stage cast member Weaver and Lawford-Wolf (“Rabbit-Proof Fence”) in mind, and their performances are never less than note-perfect. Smith and Hamilton are fine, and Brendan Cowell, an actor-writer-director in his own right, can be glimpsed briefly as an outback publican (Cowell returned the favour by casting Sims as an ad agency boss in his new film “Ruben Guthrie,” which also screened at the Sydney Film Festival).
The modest-sized crew, led by d.p. Steve Arnold (“Disgrace”) creates a solid tech package that owes a confessed debt to placid yet pungent 1970s-era character studies. The guitar score by Ed Kuepper, founder of legendary punk combo the Saints, is quietly evocative even as it avoids twangy cliche.