| art & architecture | books & cds | dance
| destinations | film | opera | television | theater | archives
Last Night (1998)
Last Night sounds like the name of a
20-something sex comedy, but the title of writer-director Don McKellars film is
meant to be taken literally. Set in present-day Toronto, Last Night covers the last
six hours on Earth before some natural cataclysm sweeps all life from the face of the
We never learn the
exact nature of the threat, but it seems to be coming from up above. (The characters tend
to let their gazes drift upward whenever they contemplate whats going on, and a
state of perpetual daylight has fallen over the land.) All hope of salvation has been
satisfactorily laid to rest before the movie begins (no nuke-laden astronauts are going to
make the problem go away), so McKellar can focus on how his disparate characters respond
to the knowledge that their time that everyones time has come.
The few peripheral figures with any anger left in them have formed ragtag bands that sweep
through the city streets committing mindless acts of vandalism and violence, but Last
Night doesnt care about them or their quotidian brand of nihilism. Instead
its concerned with a handful of common characters "the rest of us
suckers" who have to decide how to spend the final hours of their lives.
wants to face the end alone in his apartment. His friend, Craig (Callum Keith Rennie), is
intent on living out a compulsively detailed sexual wish-list. Sandra (Sandra Oh) has
plans to commit suicide with her husband, but shes stuck across town from him and
may not make it home in time to keep her end of the deal. Duncan (played by director David
Cronenberg) is a gas company employee who conscientiously calls each of his customers to
assure them that their utility service will continue uninterrupted until the final
disaster. Patricks mother (Roberta Maxwell) masks her desperation by insisting that
the family hold a mock-Christmas dinner. Her husband (Robin Gammel) goes along with her
out of devotion.
characters dont follow the Hollywood norm for these types of affairs. They
dont launch into little speeches that artificially sum up their lives; they
dont tear at their hair or declaim about the unfairness of it all. On the contrary,
theyre mostly civil and quite sane considering the dilemma theyre in. They
still have it in them to irritate each other, but because they get the Big Picture, they
do their best to be kindly in their little remaining time. And even though its the
last day of their lives, they cant help screwing up each others plans just
because theyre human. Mostly they fall into situations a discussion about
Pete Seegers politics, giving aid to a stranded stranger, screwing their high school
French teacher that appear insane in the context of when theyre occurring,
but which reveal these people for what they are.
McKellar fills in
the background of his story with some funny and canny details. The DJ of the local radio
station plays his favorite pop tunes in reverse order, all the while happily assuring his
listeners, "Well be with you to the very end." A small mob purposefully
carries a large statue down the street, and its unclear whether its a keepsake
or a battering ram. And when Sandra finds her trashed auto on a deserted street, the perky
little bell that chimes as she opens the front door is a bittersweet joke: its one
of those thinly reassuring touchstones of normality, now failing miserably at its task.
McKellar wants us to
understand that human life derives its preciousness less from any inherent grace than from
its connections to other lives, other people. As the finale approaches, the ineffable
sadness of the end of the world begins to work on you as a notion. It brings into relief
the transitory and fragile nature of relationships, and causes us to feel a special sense
of rue for the ones we neglect.
accomplishes all this in spite of itself for its marred by a number of flaws
most of them rookie mistakes. As a screenwriter, McKellars thinking can be too pat.
For instance, he makes the classic mistake of thinking that cynicism is always rooted in
sorrow and loss, so he throws in a spurious backstory about Patrick being a widower long
after weve accepted his bitterness on its own terms. McKellar with his the flashing
eyes and quickened speech patterns could make a convincing full-blown cynic, but his
Patrick is conventionally conceived.
At least Patrick
is a conception, even if a false one. Other characters, especially some of
Patricks family members, arent conceived at all. Sarah Polley fans, in
particular, may want their money back as Patricks sister, shes given a
nothing part. Genevieve Bujold as the French teacher has one smashing scene (she forces
Patrick to stand still in the middle of this hectic day and explain to her in
French what he does for a living), but after that shes only asked to lend the
film a high-toned wistfulness. (Not giving actors like Bujold and Polley enough to do
should be some kind of crime.)
It would also be
nice if McKellar required a little more discipline from his actors. Oh, in particular, is
amateurish in her early scenes, overstating her consternation by flapping her hands about
like a ditz. (Oddly, shes much more effective in her later, infinitely more
demanding scenes than she is at the early simple stuff.) Similarly, McKellar could have
taken control of some sequences that dont add up to anything. One of them involves a
gaga woman and her daughter sitting on an otherwise empty bus for the first half of the
movie. We see them once or twice, but nothing happens to them until some vandals tip the
bus over, and then thats it: we never see or hear from them again. And a scene where
Patrick lashes out at his sisters boyfriend doesnt make sense on any level
because we know Patrick, whatever his stress level, is simply too intelligent to
misconstrue the boyfriend in quite the way he does.
These are some
fairly serious flaws, yet even in combination they cant quite sink Last Night.
More ambitious films have been laid low by lesser faults, but the bottom line is that Last
Night simply works. Maybe its McKellars overall sincerity that pulls
the movie through, or the no-frills but convincing execution of the central idea. Or maybe
its the purity of the movies heart, best expressed in a shot that comes near
the end as two of the characters find themselves bound together by the double helix of
their own emotions, and sit waiting for the end of the world.
- Tom Block