If given incontrovertible proof of the afterlife, how would mankind respond? As speculations go, it’s a biggie – one worthy of any number of dramatic explorations.
The first I’ve seen to tackle it is Next Exit, the feature debut of writer-director Mali Elfman, who uses the premise less for its paradigm-shifting potential than to ask a much simpler, more human-level question: what is it that makes life living? The world is in a state of upheaval after the existence of ghosts is proven by a Dr. Stevenson (a cameoing Karen Gillan). As part of her further study, she offers to perform euthanasia on suicidal volunteers, so that they can offer their insight from beyond the grave.
What knowledge she hopes to gain from these spectres – dark, blurry, and seemingly mute – is unclear. A similar plot-line in Doctor Who let to the reveal that the supposed ghosts were in fact Cybermen(!), but Next Exit contains no such revelations. These are in fact the conscious remnants of the dead, or so we’re led to believe; a fact that, in a supremely unlikely leap of logic, everyone seems to buy into. These can be comforting, like with the little boy whose returning father acts as Subject Zero, or distinctly less so; such as in the case of Rose (Katie Parker), a dry, sarcastic loner who’s tormented by a mysterious female figure.
Her torment is such that she has decided to end things, courtesy of Dr. Stevenson, and is en route to San Francisco to do so. Unfortunately, a mix-up at the rental agency forces her to share a car. Her co-self-annihilator is Teddy (Rahul Kohli), a scruffy, endearingly sweary Brit with whom Rose gets on not at all. Next Exit is structured as a road-trip movie, travelling across the vast, cloudy countryside of the American heartland, but is more invested in the human journey; as all good road trips should be. Elfman’s script, written over the course of a decade, has an innate understanding of Rose and Teddy – what makes them tick, and tick each other off, and, most crucially, not want to tick.
For a film following two traumatised protagonists, both damaged to the point that they see no way out except death, Next Exit has a certain lightness of touch. The more-optimistic Teddy sees this as a chance to be part of something important; the spiritual equivalent of leaving his body to science. For Rose, it’s about negating her guilt over all the bad life decisions she’s made. Despite this, the film frequently funny – as in a blackly comic sequence where the pair have to deal with a dead body – and sometimes harrowing – particularly in one sequence where a former border patrolman, John (Tim Griffin), drunkenly confesses the sin that has left him with near-constant metaphysical companions. Kohli’s iZombie costar Rose McIver appears as Rose’s sister Heather, her self-imposed estrangement from whom is both results from and is a source of ongoing regret.
Elfman’s direction is subtle, unobtrusive, with an aptitude for framing that allows for neat reveals, dramatic or comedic. Both Parker and Kohli already have form with ghosts, from her role in Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House and from his in the sequel The Haunting of Bly Manor. Azuli Anderson’s cinematography is muted but never dreary, befitting a world where life has lost its significance. Ariel Marx’s score is similarly understated, piano and strings vibrating with melancholy.
Despite its bleakness, both narrative and cinematographic, Next Exit is a desperate paean to hope – not the least of which, that we have much more to look forward to from Mali Elfman.
Next Exit is available for digital rental from February 20th, 2023