Next Exit, 2022.
Written and directed by Mali Elfman.
Starring Katie Parker, Rahul Kohli, Karen Gillan, and Rose McIver.
After humanity confirms the existence of an afterlife, a research scientist launches a study in which volunteers commit painless suicide. Traveling from New York to San Francisco, two strangers share a rental car as they go to end their lives.
In her filmmaking debut, writer-director Mali Elfman (daughter of composer Danny) delivers a diverting, blackly comedic road movie that doubles as a meaningful meditation on guilt, depression, and mortality, no matter its occasional tonal missteps.
In the near-future, life after death has been proven beyond any doubt, and scientist Dr. Stevenson (Karen Gillan) has launched a study where volunteers are called upon to be willingly euthanised in order to further examine the phenomenon. Two such volunteers are New Yorkers Rose (Katie Parker) and Teddy (Rahul Kohli), who due to a rental car mix-up take the long drive to Dr. Stevenson’s San Francisco lab together. The initially frosty, awkward dynamic slowly thaws as they inch closer to what might be their final destinations.
If conceptually reminiscent of Charlie McDowell’s 2017 film The Discovery, Elfman’s movie quickly grabs the attention in its own intriguing way, with an opening scene in which a young boy interacts with the spectral form of his father, visible only through specialist imaging technology.
Yet don’t expect to see ghosts and hi-tech gumpth throughout Next Exit, which instead explores its fascinating concept through low-fi, emotionally charged means. Elfman fleetingly considers how an afterlife revelation would turn society upside down – predictably, murders and suicides have skyrocketed, and politicians rush to draft new legislation – yet the focus is almost entirely on two troubled, tortured people and the reasons for their deciding to die.
The result is a continually engaging if at times tonally unwieldy effort, veering from dead-serious to quirkily funny on the turn of a dime, as may bewilder some viewers. The quippy dialogue doesn’t always hit, and there are times where Rose and Teddy’s warming to one another comes off as rushed, but the overall throughline is persuasively sold regardless courtesy of strong work from leads Katie Parker and Rahul Kohli.
While the journey and its ultimately outcome aren’t at all surprising, and some of the more dramatic moments verge on histrionic, the internal journeys of these two characters do feel largely authentic; each has an overpowering reason for wishing to submit to the experiment, and one which the other serves as a sounding board for.
Katie Parker is remarkable as the deeply cynical, standoffish Rose, while Kohli sings as the chirpier, more outgoing – if still wrenchingly anguished – Teddy. Their naturalistic performances and chemistry are the pic’s easy highlight, without which it wouldn’t be so easy to buy into some of the script’s bigger emotional asks. There’s thankfully a profound compassion dripping from most every moment of the story, granting viewers a path into the mindset of traumatised people and the experiences of those who seek death – albeit with a heightened sci-fi fringe.
Elfman’s filmmaking is also appropriately moody and stripped down for the majority, making it feel wholly rooted in our own reality no matter the elevated genre gloss. Ariel Marx’s airy score compounds the vibe, while Elfman’s famous father also contributes some welcome additional music and themes. The film’s final passage does suffer a little through some of its more ambitious imagery, as it’s clear that the production lacked the budget for robust effects shots, yet this is ultimately a fairly minor issue.
All in all, compelling character psychology and a riveting focal double act ensure Next Exit is – wait for it – a ride worth taking. Sharply calibrated performances from Katie Parker and Rahul Kohli elevate this intriguing yet sometimes overwrought existential sci-fi drama.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.