Saturday, May 21, 2011

Why I Love: Last Night

If you’re reading this today, then I regret to inform you that according to some babbling calendar obsessed idiots, you were probably not chosen to ascend into heaven and avoid the upcoming rapture scheduled to run until October. Clearly, you were Left Behind, but so was Kirk Cameron so who are you to feel insecure?

I love me a good rapture, just as much as I love the underrated Mimi Rogers film, The Rapture. But that’s a story for another day, and since we’ve apparently got another 5 months of movie watching left before Paul Bettany fights a bunch of angel zombie things (or something), let’s shift to a more cheerful 100 minutes of apocalyptic warmth, recommended successfully some months ago from my blogging pal Shiftless (blog here), of whom I shall be eternally grateful to.

Don McKellar’s 1998 black comedy(ish) Last Night is one of those extraordinarily unique little films that sits with you like a fine glass of red wine (the good kind, not the crappy one gargled down by the main characters). It’s funny but not in a quote-it way, touching but not sentimental, and ultimately, incredibly special in a manner entirely its own.

The story takes place in an unnamed Toronto on the last day of the universe. For reasons never explained, the world will end at the stroke of midnight, a fact that the general populace has known for the last few months. This being Canada, the civilians seem to take it in stride.
Director McKellar plays Patrick, a sad and closed-off widower trying to go out with the world in peace and solitude. That doesn’t happen. Instead, Patrick is forced into human interaction at every turn, from an awkward ‘Christmas’ dinner with his parents and sis (my girl crush Sarah Polley), chance meetings with old pals (strategically horny Callum Keith Rennie, an old high school French teacher, a nerdy pianist school chum) and most importantly, the tense soul that is Sandra Oh. 

Sigh, you’re thinking, apocalyptic meet-cutes that might call to mind Grey’s Anatomy? Settle down, left behinders. Last Night is quirky but not in the annoying indie way, even if it is indeed a quirky indie. It’s easily the most cheerful end-of-the-world story I’ve seen, but that doesn’t mean the film is all sweet maple syrup and red vines. 
Take some of the supporting characters, all of whom are and have been very aware that the clock is ticking. Some have planned each final minute, like Rennie's scheduled nearly nonstop sexcapades to act out every fantasy he's ever had. One such bang involves the aforementioned French teacher, who follows an afternoon of passion with an awkward conversation with another former student Patrick and spends her last moments entranced by a piano player's scarcely attended concert. There's something sad or beautiful, or maybe not at all sad and beautiful about this minor character's trajectory. 

Then there's the demigod of Canadian film, David Cronenberg putting in a subtle, sympathetic performance as a single middle-aged man who chooses his final day to go to work, make his calls to answering machine after answering machine assuring the city that the gas company is still working, then head home for a tub of ice cream. As a lifelong fan of Cronenberg's sadistic gynocologists, belly VCRs, nude Russian bathhouse brawls and armpit vaginas, it's eerily refreshing to watch the man exist in such an ethereal scope on film.

Last Night is sort of an ensemble film, though only in the sense that virtually every speaking character comes off as an actual person. We don't get more than five minutes of dialogue from Sarah Polley, but within her brief scenes, we believe her and Patrick to be siblings, not overly close but connected nonetheless. We know from one line that she's spending the end with her boyfriend, probably a former ex who maybe went a little crazy once the world's stopwatch was activated. It's enough.

Patrick is ultimately our lead, although McKellar is wisely subdued. He's a sad man, one greeting the apocalypse without much of a reaction until he meets Sandra (Oh), the kind of flaky but earnest woman whose life would probably have had far less meaning were it lived to its entirety. Oh is absolutely wonderful as a tense wandering wife searching for her new husband (one clearly married in the throws of the apocalyptic fever). Her goal? To shoot him in the head at the stroke of midnight as he does the same for her. The apocalypse, you see, stirred something different up in Sandra: defiance. She got pregnant soon after the announcement, simply to see if she could. She ties the knot and buys a gun just so that it's her decision to die and not the world's.

The first time I watched Last Night, I was touched and amused. Upon second viewing, there's something about Sandra that I find fascinating. None of us can say with any certainty what we'd do with our final months on this planet, and perhaps what I love about Sandra's choices is that I get the sense she never expected THESE would be her decisions. Something about the ticking clock activated this sense of anger and need inside of her.

"Tell me something to make me love you," she pleads (rushed, not romantically) to Patrick as the clock hits 11:58. It's a wonderfully quotable line, funny in its absurdity, tragic in its impossibility, and utterly believable in the rather unbelievable situation of Last Night. 

I haven't even gotten to McKellar's fantastic use of music or the fact that the sun hauntingly shines throughout the entire evening. Or the gleeful plethora of unusual cars (Callem's mint-green classic and my father's personal favorite, an AMC Pacer). The funny, if slightly unsettling female jogger who runs through town and announces the time left with more cheer than the Battle Royale television star. 

Last Night might not be a masterpiece of filmmaking, but it simply hits me in a way few films can. This may very well be a case of personal taste, though even that leaves me mystified. There's nothing in my life that I particularly connect to the characters of this film, and yet when I watch or think about it, I find myself breaking into warmly comforting smiles and tears. We're used to end-of-the-world tales following messianic survivors, leather-clad bandits or go get 'em heroes. In Last Night, there are no superstars or villains. There are no miracles. There's just us, men and women choosing their lives as they want to live them, even if it's a matter of minutes before eternal death. I don't know why I find that so powerful, but it's films like these that make me happy to be here.


  1. I like the way this film revolves wholly, exclusively, and completely around Oh's character, everyone else is invisible, i literally didn`t notice any of them.

  2. That would admittedly make a neat ending, in my opinion, the ending of this poignant and low-key film is suddenly crashed by Lord Humungous and his crew, Blazing Saddles style!! Of course, one of my favourite movies in the 1967 Casino Royale, so my deranged opinion is completely worthless.

  3. Saw this about 6 months ago and thought it was very thought-provoking. Enjoyed it a lot, but then again I'm kind of a sucker for end-of-the-world movies...

  4. Interesting Teddy. I do think Oh is ultimately the most powerful force in the film, but I care about virtually all the characters.

    Chris: I'm a terrible person (clearly, since I didn't ascend yesterday) who has never seen Casino Royale or, more importantly, Blazing Saddles. Ultimately, MY opinion is therefore always worthless!

    And I'm with ya on the end of the Kangas. Such a fascinating sub-genre.

  5. Wow, this sounds amazing. Incredible review Emily. Checking this out ASAP.

  6. I'm glad you like the film as much as I do Emily, I just can't decide what I like most about it. McKellar's family is almost a carbon copy of mine and I found his scenes at home painfully hilarious. I also couldn't get enough of Callum Keith Rennie's nuttiness, and I liked Oh's desperate character as well. The one person I was strangely touched by though was Tracy Wright who played Cronenberg's coworker. Something about her just broke my heart. What a quietly awesome Canadian movie!

  7. I still can't thank you enough for originally recommending it Shiftless! And I almost forgot about Tracy Wright! She's so perfectly sad but not in a typically 'sad & lonely' stereotypical way. The scene where she reveals her daily spiked drink is so strangely touching. Love it all.

  8. all this talk of Tracy Wright makes me sad.

  9. I didn't know she passed away! That is incredibly sad. She's phenomenal in Last Night!