A euthanasia parable in the outback


Last Cab to Darwin (M). Director: Jeremy Sims. Starring: Michael Caton, Jacki Weaver, Mark Coles Smith, Ningali Lawford. 124 minutes

In August 1996, 67-year-old Broken Hill cab driver Max Bell drove 3000 kilometres through the centre of the Australian outback to Darwin. Bell had stomach cancer and a dire prognosis, and his singular purpose for taking this unforgiving trek was to make use of the Northern Territory's freshly minted Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995, which had come into effect that July.

Bell would have been the first person to die under the act, but it wasn't to be, despite the efforts of euthanasia's leading proponent, Dr Philip Nitschke. Under the act, 'Nitschke had to find an NT-resident specialist in Bell's illness to confirm his diagnosis … and a psychiatrist to confirm that he was not suffering a treatable clinical depression', reported the Sydney Morning Herald in September 1996.

'Not one would come forward, and Bell returned home to die what is termed a "natural" death in hospital,' the report continued. Later, Nitschke recalled on his website that Bell 'was disgusted and angry at what he saw as the cowardice of the doctors'. Bell died weeks later back in Broken Hill, 'precisely in the way he most dreaded, slowly and with the process out of his control', said Nitschke.

Last Cab to Darwin, directed by Jeremy Sims and adapted from a play of the same name by Reg Cribb, is based on these events, but it is more accurate to say that it takes them and refracts them through the creative and the particular ideological bent of the filmmaker and writer. It is a warm, funny and thoughtful film that doesn't quite achieve the epic status to which it aspires.

In 1996, Bell's plight and the popular sympathy it garnered actually gave short-lived momentum to the erstwhile act. Sims and Cribb reimagine the story as a life-affirming parable about a man learning late in life what really matters. Max is recast as Rex (Caton), a well-liked Broken Hill cabbie who is an older, more jaded version of the mythical loveable larrikin Caton played (or subverted) in 1997's The Castle.

Dismayed by the prognosis that he has only three months to live, Rex abandons his work, home and affable, beer-swilling mates and sets out across the desert towards Darwin, where prominent euthanasia advocate Dr Nicole Farmer (Weaver) — a fictional substitute for Nitschke — is fighting an ongoing political and PR battle to ensure the act can be effectively utilised by those who so desire.

Like all road movies, Last Cab is as much about the journey as the destination. Steve Arnold's cinematography imbues the scrubby, sublime landscapes with a contemplative power that heightens the sense that Rex is searching for himself as much as for a solution. The expansive backdrop literally and figuratively expands his perspective, as do the people that he meets along the way.

These include, most notably, Tilly (Smith), a young Aboriginal man who becomes Rex's unlikely companion on the road. Tilly's insouciance and indifference to his family obligations intermittently crack and buckle in the desert heat, to reveal subcutaneous, generational scars of dispossession. The layers of Tilley's pain (emblematic of the broader Aboriginal pain) cause Rex to reflect on his own pain.

In fact Sims and Cribb are as interested in exploring the relationship between black and white Australia as they are the nuances of discussions about euthanasia. The film's most touching subplot concerns the relationship between Rex and his neighbour, an explosive and proud Aboriginal woman, Polly (Lawford). They share a lovely tenderness, albeit one that Rex feels compelled to hide from judgemental eyes.

The film's explorations of these relationships is perhaps more interesting even than its contemplation of euthanasia. Rex twice backs out of attempting suicide, on one occasion observing (rather poignantly) that 'dying is hard' — as a contribution to a conversation with so many ethical, moral and social nuances, there are many who would argue that the film's pat 'choose life' message just feels too easy.

Dr Farmer herself, the Nitschke avatar and the film's most articulate pro-euthanasia mouthpiece, proves to be as much a politician as a humanitarian. The character is poorly drawn and does not ring true (despite Weaver's considerable prowess), though it does at least serve to illustrate the point that all sides in the debate risk losing sight of human dignity if they are too heavily veiled in ideology.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Last Cab to Darwin, Michael Caton, Jacki Weaver, Jeremy Sims



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Existing comments

In 2011, with botched bowel cancer op, and septicaemia rampantly widening it was unilaterally decided by medicos, to let nature take its course[passive euthanasia]. Unbeknown to myself it was announced from a local pulpit I had two days to live! Meanwhile, I providentially found out from a visiting friend, a Senior Lecturer in psychology, that I was facing euthanasia. He upon immediate orders from myself demanded staff, 'up the ante' on antibiotics and that God will decide my death in more obvious fashion.[Staff clearly felt real compassion for my future bedridden existence-being previously hemiplegic from 2001 stroke, and now post op rehab-and pastorally useless. But there was still the rich apostolate of Abandonment to Gods Will in Sacrament of Present Moment[Pere De Caussade SJ] Viva being heavily involved in pro-life ideology!![The mechanics of near-death experience may vary! But Church Teaching is crystal clear in vigorously opposing secular grim reaper utilitarianism].

Father John George | 06 August 2015  

The English society, Modern Church (earlier, the Modern Churchman's Union) has devoted its recent Vol.56 Issue 2 of "Modern Believing" to the subject of "Assisted Dying : For And Against The Proposed (UK) Legislation". So opposed to that subject, I deferred even opening the journal and have only just begun to read it and I have begun to think again. I should highly recommend reading it. The case for assisted dying is put, for example, by well-known Anglican theologian, Paul Badham, but also by the former (evangelical) Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey who tells why he changed his mind. (Hans Kung has also written about this.) My mind is not made up but we are not dealing simply with "secular grim reaper utilitarianism" - though one is moved by Fr George's testimony. An hon.C.of E.hospital chaplain, for over 17 years, and having seen so many dying people, including my parents, we need to continue to think about this subject.

John Bunyan | 07 August 2015  

The way I choose to die is between me and my God, not anyone else!

Geraldine Gillen | 08 August 2015  

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