REVIEW: Last Night [1998]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: R | Runtime: 95 minutes | Release Date: October 23rd, 1998 (Canada)
Studio: Alliance Atlantis Communications / Odeon Films
Director(s): Don McKellar
Writer(s): Don McKellar

“Would it hurt you to play along just once?”

The cause might be unnamed, but the fact it’s still sunny at midnight guarantees the giant star at the center of our solar system is going supernova (whether or not physics deems it possible). Because all life on Earth will cease in a predetermined instant, you can bet the entire world thought about where they’ll be and what they’ll do when it happens. Maybe a newscaster takes it upon himself to stay on-air and guide viewers while your local DJ compiles a list of his five hundred favorite songs to play on the radio without worrying about advertising dollars drying up. Maybe you’ll stay close with loved ones indoors or join a bunch of strangers wreaking consequence-free havoc outdoors. Judgment can’t exist if nobody is around to judge.

This is the scenario writer/director Don McKellar constructs for which the characters within his feature debut Last Night must react. He gives Patrick (McKellar) the tragic backstory of having just experienced the death of his wife days before news of the apocalypse arrived and Sandra (Sandra Oh) the more optimistic recent past of a whirlwind marriage to a stranger these desperate circumstances have looking like her soul mate. Both have very specific plans already laid out once they accomplish one more errand each around dinnertime that final day. He promises to visit his parents for a makeshift Christmas of nostalgic remembrance before dying alone in his apartment while she volunteers to loot the market on her way home so she and her husband can remain together all evening.

Elsewhere in Toronto is Duncan’s (David Cronenberg) stuffy yet conscientious gas company executive calling every customer to confirm their utility will stay active until the bitter end thanks to a devoted employee’s (Tracy Wright‘s Donna) sacrifice. There’s Patrick’s sister Jennifer (Sarah Polley) and her boyfriend Alex (Trent McMullen) who would rather treat their fate like a party than lament their mortality as a wake; Craig Zwiller (Callum Keith Rennie) using mankind’s imminent peril to enlist women for sexual conquests that fulfill his desires whether they be appearance- or performance-based; and a slew of other random characters walking their own unique paths towards oblivion. For them (Geneviève Bujold‘s Mme. Carlton and Michael McMurtry‘s Menzies amongst others) this journey is generally quiet, contemplative, and personal with a dose of melancholy.

While they’ll all eventually cross paths with at least two others through chance encounters or purposeful rendezvous, it’s the collision between Patrick and Sandra that serves as the central pairing due to them possessing the same common motivating factor of love. His choice to be alone is steeped in a desire to honor the memory of his wife while her desperation to get home is due to her wanting to be with her husband when they take their last breath. Because of the chaos in the streets, however, her car is destroyed in the few minutes it took to glean through empty shelves at the store. With nowhere to turn (public transportation has all been abandoned), Sandra finds herself resting on Patrick’s doorstep upon his return from “Christmas.”

It’s an awkward meeting since she doesn’t want to be there but can’t get ahold of her husband by phone and he doesn’t want her there but can’t just throw her out. Eventually they try appealing to drivers’ humanity with thumbs outstretched, but everyone is either too busy getting where they’re going or not the sort Sandra would risk owing a favor (extinction or not). When that doesn’t work, he calls on a friend to lend a car as the hours gradually tick down via interstitials and an enthusiastic runner (Jackie Burroughs) screaming the time as she goes. Themes like suicide, sex, and responsibility also arrive to add some heartfelt weight to the situation and offset the otherwise sardonic comedy serving as Last Night‘s best attribute.

It’s definitely a Toronto film with most action occurring outdoors as mentions of Canadian locales are sprinkled throughout the dialogue. You can even catch some cameos by directors Bruce McDonald and François Girard alongside producer Daniel Iron credited as “Wild Guys” for added maple leaf flavor. Despite all this, though, McKellar has created a resonantly universal look at the generally mundane lives we live wherein the end of the world truly does little to change who we are. It ultimately comes down to pleasure whether physical (Craig), emotional (Roberta Maxwell and Robin Gammell as Patrick’s parents wanting nothing more than community with their children), or psychological (Menzies simply wishing to feel artistically fulfilled by performing a piano recital on a massive stage to the ten people who care).

Things get grim thanks to a well-placed murder, but Patrick and Sandra’s blossoming friendship out of existential crisis retains the slimmest chance of hope in the face of nihilism anyway. That urge to still want to create despite knowing there’s no tomorrow proves a rather profound message when contrasted by a general sense of opportunistic impulse taking hold. Where so many are willing to have fun at the expense of others, there are still a select few who see their demise as a test of integrity and faith. Despite Craig being a dog, there comes the realization that he’s providing the woman in his bed what they crave too. In the end that’s the best we can strive for: consensual companionship to remember life while succumbing to death.

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