February 20, 2003

Under the Radar

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What would you do if the world was ending in six hours? Let me rephrase. What would you do if the world was really ending in six hours, with no hope of reprieve. All the stupid Armageddon type mock-heroics have come to naught, there’s no bomb shelter, there’s no one holding us hostage. It’s just ending. You have six hours. How do you spend them? Don McKellar considers that question and gets a beautiful array of answers in his strangely hopeful, funny, and wise film Last Night.

The film takes place in an oddly tranquil Toronto, punctuated with jarring violence. There are shots which suggest that massive riots have taken place, but the people are mostly past that now. They gather in groups, or sit alone, or wander. And wait. It’s six o’clock and the world ends at midnight. The sun is constant in the sky, an oppressive presence, because it gives the impression of stopped time as everyone focuses on time running out. On this last of days, there’s no place Patrick Wheeler (Don McKellar) would like to be less than with his family. His mother insists on treating the day as some sort of new holiday, rewrapping childhood birthday and Christmas presents and presenting them to her less than enthusiastic children. His father is wordless, motionless, except to reprimand Patrick. And his sister Jenny (Sarah Polly, telling us everything we need to know about her character in her 20 minutes off screentime) just wants to go find one last great party.

It’s a great, stifling scene of dysfunctional family, and the audience can easily understand Patrick’s desire to be elsewhere. But as it turns out, Patrick doesn’t particularly want to be anywhere. His wife died a year ago, and for him the world has already ended. So he can’t quite understand what everyone else is getting so upset about. McKellar subtly suggests, especially in the first scene with his family, that there’s an undercurrent of grim satisfaction, of contentment in his character. Misery loves company, they say, and the situation should give him the entire world for company. Why and how this isn’t necessarily the case drive the action for the rest of the film.

Patrick escapes from his family only to encounter Sandra, whose car has been ripped apart by a mob (which reappears throughout the film, we’re never told why they’re rioting, expect out of anger at the entire situation) and needs to get across town so she can have one last dinner with her husband. It is one of the film’s nicer touches to make “across town” sound like an impossibly far journey. Sandra and Patrick are stuck together for the rest of the film, which Patrick views with slight irritation since he’d rather be alone, and Sandra with growing desperation since she’d rather be with someone. She tries repeatedly to make Patrick an acceptable companion: “tell me something to make me love you,” she says, near the end. In a romantic comedy, Oh’s demand would be trite emotional shorthand and evidence for her spunky, unorthodox character. But McKellar knows you can’t invent or coerce intimacy. So does the character. So her words become an anguished plea with a selfish wish we can easily understand: no one wants to die with a stranger.

The film follows other characters through their last hours, some for the length of the movie, others, like a mother sitting silently in a streetcar with her crying daughter, only for a moment. The recurring characters include a gas company executive (David Cronenberg) who’s personally calling every customer to assure them of service right up to the end and his assistant, who’s staying for as long as he is. The most interesting member of the ensemble however, is Patrick’s best friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie). Craig covered the walls of his apartment with a list of every kind of sex he’d like to have (an older woman, a virgin, a guy), and then went looking for it. Craig’s been very busy the past six months. Craig’s plan could easily be a one note joke, but the meticulousness with which he goes about his task (and it is a task or a quest, not empty gratification) raises his goal into something more interesting and meaningful. After all, it’s a great way to meet people. Craig has found a way to connect instantly with as many people as he can. One of the best moments is when Patrick walks into Craig’s apartment to find their old french teacher walking out (she quizzes him on irregular verbs).

McKellar is the lead actor, director, and screenwriter. Rather than a self-indulgent exercise in ego, what results is a unified vision. McKellar has really thought out this world he’s created. There’s a reality to the film present in the minute details of behavior which can only result from keen observation. There’s a sense that all of the characters are reacting to one state of affairs, with the precise nature of their world delinated in subtle turns of phrase and throw away lines. With a solid, standard (if soon to be extinct) world in place, McKellar can more clearly suggest that what we have are different people’s reactions to the same situation, which in turn tells us more about the people in the film. We come to know everyone, and care for them. For a film like this, the Achilles heel is the end. How do you end the world and satisfy the audience? Instead of floundering, McKellar finds the perfect note on which to end because he is genuinely concerned with the characters he’s created and wants to give them, if not a happy, then a truthful, end.

Archived article by Erica Stein