Note: I wrote this a year ago for reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture. As LAST NIGHT is one of my best beloved Canadian films, #CanFilmDay seems like a good time to send it out into the world.
In late 1999, we prepared for apocalypse. It was apt. I was a senior in college, majoring in English, with no prospects ahead of me beyond the single joke that exists about English majors, the one with the punch line: “Would you like fries with that?” Survivalist branches of my family stocked up for when the computers crashed and the world went haywire, and even though my uncle warned us that just being family wasn’t necessarily enough to be admitted into the bunker, a part of me still hoped for the global meltdown. If I didn’t survive it, fair enough. If I did, maybe I could just start over.
On that New Year’s Eve I was at a bar, the only time in my life that those two things were true at the same time. I was half in love with my best friend, and that night she bought me a drink but didn’t kiss me. We waited for midnight watching other people sing karaoke, and even though most of the world arrived in 2000 before those of us in Pacific Standard Time, it was still disappointing when the power stayed on.
The previous spring Don McKellar had brought his film, Last Night, to the Seattle International Film Festival. Created as part of an international year 2000 series, Last Night presents us with the final six hours on earth for a handful of characters in Toronto. When I think of end of the world movies, I see huge tragedies, millions of people dying, buildings falling, fireballs, monsters and aliens, and of course the first responders with their photogenic families. This is how the movies tell us the world will end, and they teach us to long for that chaos.
In contrast, Last Night is striking in its gentleness. From the first time I saw it, I loved how quiet the movie was. We know for certain that the world is ending and when, but we don’t know why or how, and yet somehow those two questions do not matter at all. In Toronto, the world will end at midnight. This is all we need to know. We glance out car windows or down the street and find hints of all the other end of the world movies: smoke pours from a high rise, the stores are looted, people are always running past, and finally they crash into a streetcar as if drawn to it by magnets, and rock it until it tips onto its side.
We hear of other ways of meeting the end. People speak of prayer circles, of going out onto a lake in canoes, or of attending a giant concert downtown. I imagine how my parents, and even myself these days, struggle to stay awake long enough to greet the new year, and I wonder if we could stay awake on this last night.
Even though we know that everyone will die at midnight, there are only two deaths in the film itself. One was in the past and one is in the present, and even these are quiet. The past death is told to us first as the camera pans across a collection of get well cards drawn by children. The present death is introduced initially through strawberry ice cream, melting and abandoned. Even on the last night, these deaths are blows to us. Two losses have meaning that high body count movies cannot achieve.
When we join the story at 6pm, Patrick (McKellar) is lying flat on his back on the floor, dressed in black, and knotting his tie. We look down on him from above as he listens to his own voice on the answering machine outgoing message, a last bit of love to friends and family, and a promise his mother that he’s on his way.
He’s an hour late for his family’s Christmas dinner on the last night of the world, and the incoming phone call is from the gas company, with promises of their own. They will do their best to keep the gas flowing right up to the end.
The characters have a rare and awful gift, in that they know when they are doing things for the last time. Every conversation, however routine, has extra weight behind it. The old rhythms of the family dinner cut a little deeper as Patrick’s mother tries to make everything perfect, “So when you go home, alone, at midnight, you’ll remember your parents weren’t so bad”, and his father asking “Would it hurt you to play along?” Every family has an image of who they are, every gathering is in some way a performance, but Patrick wants this final experience to be a true one, even if it challenges the illusion others want to maintain.
Everyone we travel with through these last few hours has a plan for a truthful, human scale end. We meet Sandra (Sandra Oh) as she’s deliberating between the two remaining bottles of wine in a looted grocery. She and her husband have decided to take control via suicide pact, and she gradually disrupts Patrick’s plans for solitude as it becomes clear that she will not make it home in time.
On the celebration of life end of the spectrum, Craig Zwiller (Callum Keith Rennie) is trying to get a few last items crossed off of his sexual to-do list. Though one can’t help but wonder how such a project would read if undertaken by a woman, it is clear that the women who accept his offers or seek him out with offers of their own have agency and complexity. They all have their own reasons for participating, even if it’s simply, “I just wanted to have an orgasm today.” “I’ll do my best,” he promises.
Donna (the late Tracy Wright) works for the aforementioned gas company, and is the only person needed on the premises to fulfill the promise of maintaining service right up until the end. As a person who often spends holidays alone by choice, I was touched by her character finding satisfaction in her daily routine, in her own little secrets, and in a thankless job well done, and I loved that she found the courage to find a bit of human connection for herself before it was too late.
The last night is the last chance for dreams, whatever they might be. A piano recital. A sexual bucket list. One last family holiday. One big party. An evening on the roof with a glass of wine, the perfect last song, and someone you can be silent with.
In the end, Patrick and Sandra sit across from each other, looking straight into each other’s eyes as the camera circles and embraces them. They have told each other lists of facts about themselves, the secrets and the stories, all in a desperate attempt to cram a lifetime together into a few minutes. Now they are silent and watching, a precursor to Marina Abramovic but with higher stakes, and it’s heartbreakingly intimate as the screen fades to white.
When I think of this movie, I think of Pete Seeger and “Guantanamera”. Pete Seeger is threaded through the film to such a degree that I remember it as the only song in the film. However, the soundtrack is largely AM gold, as we catch slivers of the local dj cranking out the top 500 songs of all time, according to him.
As Seeger performs it: “I am a truthful man / From the land of the palm / Before dying, I want to / Share these poems of my soul.” Before dying, everyone in this film wants to share something of themselves, to love and be loved. I don’t believe in a god or an afterlife, and the film doesn’t either, but I believe in Pete Seeger. I believe in the power of people telling their stories, I believe in the people I love even when I can’t find a way to hold onto them, and I believe I can tell you something to make you love me before the end of the world.