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Last Night

Review by Jerry White
Posted 5 November 1999


Written and Directed by Don McKellar 

Starring David Cronenberg,
Tracy Wright, Geneviève Bujold,
Roberta Maxwell, Robin Gammel,
Trent McMullen. Karen Glave,
and Jackie Burroughs

Don McKellar has been the subject of a lot of joking in Canada about what it means to be famous in this cold, celebrity-phobic country. About a year ago he was toasted at home and abroad, at both the 1998 Cannes and Toronto film festivals, having co-written and acted in the award-winning, FranVois-Girard-directed, Sam-Jackson-starring film The Red Violin, in addition to writing, directing, and starring in his own film, Last Night. Along with The Red Violin, McKellar's first foray into directing is a fantastic example of Canadian cinema's increasing comfort with the possibilities of a commercial but also intelligent national cinema. In this way, McKellar is king of the moderates, which may seem a ludicrously Canadian way of classifying him, but I'll stick to it.

McKellar's narrative centers on the (by now) proverbial apocalypse/Y2K fear, and his basic take on the last day of the millennium is that the world is simply going to end. The exact details of why or how the world is going to end, however, are left unexplained. Everyone in the film has totally accepted that it's just all over at exactly midnight, Toronto time (typical, grumbled many western Canadians, who sarcastically refer to Toronto as "the center of the universe"). All the elements of millennial/apocalyptic narrative are still here, including street riots, infrastructure breakdown and separation from loved ones and all that. Nevertheless, the way that all these characters are so completely resigned to the inevitability of it all is the creepiest part of the story. The kind of tension that would be expected in an apocalypse film is almost totally absent here: the most dramatic moments of the film are much more interior-oriented than related to any sort of end-of-the-world kind of stuff. Indeed, the film's climax, where the camera swirls around McKellar and Sandra Oh as they try to decide whether to complete a suicide pact, is excruciatingly suspenseful, far more powerful than anything in Deep Impact or Armageddon's moral universe precisely because the moment is unrelated to the fact of the apocalypse as such. It relies instead on an abstract, rawly emotional impact.

Simply as a piece of narrative, Last Night is exceptional. McKellar is quite a skilled storyteller, juggling an unusually large number of characters, giving each one a sufficient amount of depth so we understand their own individual crises and connecting them all in a way that is apparent and not overly clever. McKellar himself plays the character at the center of the film, and his deadpan humor and gently confused expression gives all these sometimes disjointed situations an odd kind of moral center. The great Quebecois actress Genvieve Bujold is especially memorable in a minor role as McKellar's former French teacher (who, as a way of going out with a bang, has sex with McKellar's coitus-obsessed friend). She gives the role a very real gravity that miraculously escapes melodrama. When she spontaneously quizzes McKellar on the French that she had taught him a decade earlier she is toughly amused by his pathetic attempts to respond. Her emotions turn gently sad when she begins to realize that it'll be the last time she sees him. "It's nice you remember some of it," she mumbles, as the elevator closes on her. It's a nice moment, played with a thoughtfulness and world-weariness that is all too uncommon these days. Sandra Oh's performance as a woman hopelessly trying to re-unite with her husband for the big moment is also a marvel. The presence and force that she's brought to other roles (most famously Double Happiness, although she also has a bit part in The Red Violin) seems oddly out of place is this environment of impossibility, but it's just that intensity and seriousness of purpose that gives her part of the film its tragic sense.

Visually, Last Night is somewhat less than revolutionary, but I'd argue that this is part of its power, rather than seeking some equivalent el much odder than an average Hollywood film. All three of these filmmakers are graduates of the Canadian Film Centre, a school started by Norman Jewison in hopes of building a film industry north of the 49th parallel and ending Hollywood domination on Canadian screens. That hasn't exactly come to pass, but the films coming out of the Centre's grads, especially those by McKellar and Girard, have done a great deal to bolster domestic and international confidence in Canadian film, and to come up with new ways of telling stories that resists both European-influenced esoteric and Hollywood-style simplicity.

Finally, then, Last Night is a film about very big ideas, which come to include the end of the world, the need for companionship, the randomness of love, the value of human life, and the impossibility of reconciliation. It's also a film that deals with these ideals in a very straightforward way, Don McKellar's refusal to indulge in this material's possibilities for philosophical pretense or melodrama is especially impressive. The film well deserves its multinational character, and indeed synthesizes the most important elements of Canadian cinema (concern with civic life, a gentle nihilism, visual utilitarianism, and narrative expertise) into a humorous, emotionally satisfying whole. I can think of no better person to be famous in Canada that Don McKellar.  

Be sure to read the interview by Sean Axmaker. 

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