Retro Review: Last Night

Canada. Directed by Don McKellar, 1998. Starring Don McKellar, Sandra Oh, Callum Keith Rennie. 95 minutes.

The world ends at midnight and the citizens of Toronto try to make the best of what few hours are left. Widowed architect Patrick (Don McKellar) wants to spend his final minutes by himself, much to the chagrin of his family, who commemorate the occasion with a Christmas celebration even though it’s not Christmas. Sandra (Sandra Oh), finding her car demolished by vandals, desperately tries to make it home to her husband. Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) ticks items off of his sexual “bucket list,” including a black woman, a virgin, and his high school French teacher (Genevieve Bujold). And Duncan (David Cronenberg), a gas company executive, calls each and every one of his customers, wishing them a peaceful death and promising that service will remain until the very end.

McKellar also wrote and directed Last Night and his vision of the end is unfailingly polite. He tells us the streets are dangerous, implying that gangs of ruffians prowl the streets looking for unsuspecting victims. But he shows us mostly deserted streets, a bit of garbage, and the occasional destructive act. A woman and her young daughter sit unmolested for hours in a disabled streetcar–not something that indicates danger or threat. In Toronto–to misquote Bob Geldof–even the muggers are home by eight. (Yes, I realize this is probably a cost-cutting move; deserted streets are cheaper than huge crowds and wanton wreckage.)

Of course all these characters turn out to be connected in some way, which leads to what largely is my biggest issue with Last Night. Shifts in mood come radically: Duncan’s genteel good humor, Sandra’s increasing desperation, Patrick’s darkly comic pathos, and whatever Craig’s story is supposed to be like. Sometimes the film’s funny, sometimes it’s serious, sometimes it’s tragic, but McKellar never quite blends the various modes and tones together just right. The bombastic, flamboyant score, which always seems at cross-purposes to whatever the visuals are trying to accomplish, doesn’t help at all. Maybe that’s by design.

At any rate, the issue is largely counterbalanced by the excellent cast. I’m never going to be a huge fan of Oh, but she does very well here, particularly towards the end; her performance is what makes the risky “tell me something that will make me love you” sequences work as well as they do. Rennie’s take on Craig is particularly interesting; he’s the least horny horndog the moving pictures have yet seen, and it seems like he’s not so much fulfilling long-harbored fantasies as doing things because all rich, straight white guys are supposed to want to have done them. (The hint that he’s actually gay is one of the best things in the entire film.)

Cronenberg tends to use his measured calmness for evil (see Nightbreed and To Die For), but here it makes Duncan perhaps the most likable character in the film. That’s not to say I advise him to quit his day job, but it’s nice to see him stretch out a bit as an actor. Of the principals, McKellar is the weak link–he doesn’t seem to have the range to pull off one of the screenplay’s most complex characters. Most of the time he does just fine, though.

The supporting cast is also strong, including McKellar’s late wife Tracy Wright as one of Duncan’s co-workers. A young(ish) Sarah Polley makes an appearance as Patrick’s sister; she seems to be miscast (the role feels like it was written for an older actress), but she puts in a good performance nonetheless.

Although uneven in parts, Last Night is an enjoyably low-key, well-behaved, intimate and distinctly Canadian apocalypse. Won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but still worth checking out.

Last Night poster

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