Everyday characters cope with impending Armageddon in the end- of- the- world allegory, 'Last Night'
I wasn't sure if I liked "Last Night" until about an hour after I left the theater and realized I was having a hard time escaping the psychological wake of this allegory about the end of the world.
The main reason for my initial hesitation was because there really isn't anyone you can get behind as a protagonist in the picture. At first the entire, interwoven cast of characters seems annoyingly dysfunctional or at least self-absorbed. But who wouldn't be with certain death looming less that six hours away?
How the world is coming to an end is not important and deliberately vague. All the film makes clear -- and the realization of this comes gradually -- is that there is no more night. For the few months that mankind has had to adjust to the idea of its cataclysmic end, it has been daylight 24 hours a day.
Writer-director-actor Don McKellar illustrates this fact by employing the same intensely colorfast photography that made the desert so parched in "Three Kings," and the effect lends credence to the desperation of some characters and eeriness to the complacency of others.
The players -- all of whom are so well-drawn in McKellar's script that we slowly begin to understand each individual's reasons for being selfish -- include a family treating Armageddon like a holiday, a pair of newlyweds (Sarah Polley and Trent McMullen) who want to party hardy, a power company manager (director David Cronenberg in a rare acting role) who busies himself calling customers and assuring them they'll have power right up until the end, a wannabe rocker (Callum Keith Rennie) rushing to fulfill his every sexual fantasy, a devoted wife (Sandra Oh) frantically trying to get home to her husband and a bitter, spiteful man (McKellar himself) who is determined to spend his closing hours alone.
Sandra Oh carries the movie's emotional weight in a stunning performance that demonstrates a range and talent only hinted at in the broad comedy she plays on HBO's "Arli$$." Having lost her car to a marauding mob (the streets are largely deserted but it's implied that there had been significant riots) and now realizing she will die without her husband, she latches on to the near repellent McKellar, who -- in a moment of selflessness soon regretted -- is the only person who offers her help.
But as the film patiently peels away the characters' thick layers of resolute pathos, we come to understand even this anti-hero's resentment toward the world in a way that eventually wrests gut-wrenching empathy as Oh tries to lure him into a suicide pact.
During its run time, "Last Night" has a tendency to feel a little dull and pretentious (if incredibly tense), in part because all these characters -- even the ones putting on a happy face -- are fatigued and visibly drained of fear and strength.
But first-time director McKellar, who has written for and acted in such memorable recent indie films as "The Red Violin" and Cronenberg's "eXistenZ," has a shrewd grasp on the use of subtlety and slow revelation. As I said, for me it was an hour after the credits rolled before the impact of this movie really washed over me.
Had I let go of my analytical self -- the part of me that wanted to rush the character disclosure and understand the science behind what was happening -- I might have been able to feel all the intensity of "Last Night" while still in the theater.
But there is no greater proof that a film has affected you deeply than when it continues to haunt you hours, days and even weeks later. "Last Night" has, and that is arguably the most certain hallmark of quality and talent any work of fiction can offer.