Scientifically verified footage of a card-playing ghost recalibrates humanity’s belief systems in this witty and emotionally penetrative Sci-Fi road movie.
Director Mali Elfman, daughter of composer Danny and stepdaughter of Bridget Fonda, had a difficult pandemic experience. So much so that the stress of it gave her shingles. To exercise these demons she embarked on the shooting of a script she had long held dear and the result is a poignantly intimate exercise in catharsis framed by an extraordinarily ambitious concept.
With the conscious afterlife a confirmed reality the head of the Life Beyond institute Dr. Stevenson, played by Karen Gillan, is seeking volunteers to track in the wake of death. Two such candidates willing to accept her offer of assisted suicide and fearless pioneer status are serial fuck up Rose and tortured purpose hunter Teddy.
The pair become entwined by the pragmatism of mutual need and decide to journey together to meet their appointments with Dr. Stevenson and the grim reaper. Although they appear to be traveling light the car is actually ram-packed with baggage, such as Teddy’s craving for recognition in the backwash of his crippling daddy issues, and Rose’s guilt-fuelled anomie that triggers an irresistible urge to press “the self-destruct button in her heart”.
Rose is too much of a casino coward to successfully cash in her chips, though she has visited the tables, and Teddy is desperate to shuffle off his mortal coil, but only with a historically appreciative audience. These two opposing motivations vitalise their bantery conflict and galvanises the philosophical nucleus of their dormant empathy.
As they progress towards their dark destiny we are fellow passengers that bear witness to the unpacking of painful psychological holdalls and the sharing out of secrets stowed in security blankets. We also become embroiled in their side-quests for emotional redemption, vengeful closure, and the right to be heard before evoking the right to die.
Dipping in and out of the meandering travelogue are various eclectic folk with different interpretations of the new normal, just as occurred during the recent pandemic itself. Some question the trustworthiness of the experts, some see the realisation of the netherworld as a reason to embrace the pure joy in the physical one, and others just knew all along anyway as a horrific byproduct of suffering.
If all this seems a tad overshopped in the depression department of the feel-bad store well, that’s because it is. It is more than implied that a great many humans grasp the groundbreaking revelations like a crowbar to splinter the claustrophobic prison of mortality and fast forward to the good bit. A resounding confirmation of the powder blue doctrine of Mr. Meeseeks that existence is pain.
However, where Next Exit really shines is in its uncanny ability to squish gallows humour and realist whimsy through the jagged meatgrinder of nihilism and end up with delicious morsels of humanistic optimism. It is beautifully scripted and even more beautifully acted adding layers of relatable soundbites and subtle personality quirks to make its fragile microworld a privilege to inhabit.
If you can imagine a top-tier episode of Black Mirror written by Richard Linklater and directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead then you are at least at a cookout in the parking lot of the ballpark.
Mali Elfman has deep personal relationships with many involved in the project and it bleeds into the easy going dynamic of her film. Just like their on-screen personas, Katie Parker and Rahul Kohli, who play Rose and Teddy respectively, have different approaches to reaching their goals. The former applies a determined intensity to her craft, while the latter a disarmingly casual approach. It is exactly this diversity that makes their on-screen chemistry so appealing and believable and affords the movie its addictive entertainment value.
Next Exit is by no means a perfect film. Yet is one of those rare examples where shortcomings morph into welcome foibles and missteps transform into idiosyncratic streamlets of narrative warmth. For some, it will be dismissed as a slight and rambling uppercut to a morality heavyweight. For many more, it will prove a delicately constructed conduit to an internal debate about ethics and spirituality that will rage inside them long after the credits roll.
Existential Sci-Fi, Relationship Road Movie | UK, 2022 | 103 mins | Arrow Frightfest 2022 |Blue Finch films| Dir. Mali Elfman | With: Katie Parker, Rahul Kohli, Karen Gillan, Rose McIver.