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If you knew well in advance the exact moment that the world was going to end, how would you spend your last six hours? Would you face doomsday affirming civilized values, communing with your family at home or in some holy place? Or would you violate social and moral taboos, fulfilling sexual urges and violent impulses? Would you expire partying or prefer to face the end in solitude? This ultimate existential question undergirds Last Night, Canadian actor-screenwriter Don McKellar’s provocative, funny, and poignant feature directorial debut.

A Hollywood filmmaker charged with depicting this theme would immediately fire off a signed blank check to Industrial Light & Magic for special effects. But shooting on a modest budget in Toronto locations, McKellar had to be more resourceful. He smatters evocative details—small bonfires, a few abandoned shops, strewn garbage, several overturned vehicles, clusters of reveling marauders—to suggest that the end is near. Rather than subjecting us to yet another pumped-up superhero battling to save the planet, Last Night focuses on how ordinary people stoically confront the prospect of extinction.

McKellar doesn’t precisely specify why time has run out. He thrusts us into the midst of a society matter-of-factly resigned to its termination. Stores are unlocked and unprotected, allowing people to walk off with any remaining unsold items. Radio disc jockeys count down the 500 all-time pop hits. A gas company executive (creepily played by director David Cronenberg) courteously phones customers to thank them for their patronage and assure them that service will be uninterrupted until the apocalypse.

The random recipients of these calls become the protagonists of McKellar’s deceptively fragmented narrative. (The linking telephone device mirrors the structural strategy of Muriel Spark’s superb novel Memento Mori, in which a gaggle of geriatrics receive anonymous phone calls with the message “Remember you must die.”) McKellar plays Patrick, a caustic young man embittered by the death of the woman he loved. He agrees to attend his parents’ last supper, which they have planned as a faux Christmas repast to put a happy face on things, but he insists on facing the final hour alone in his high-rise apartment. Returning from this gathering, he encounters Sandra (Sandra Oh), a distraught pregnant woman vainly trying to get across town to reach her husband, with whom she has a suicide pact. Initially brusque, Patrick decides to assist Sandra, but, with public transit discontinued and traffic snarled, he can’t help her reach her destination.

Several of Patrick’s friends have made different plans for the last night. Craig (Callum Keith Rennie), a former schoolmate, intends to go out screwing. In the months prior to the end, he has realized nearly every sexual fantasy that he can imagine, and has arranged to bed several new partners during his final six hours. Patrick’s sister, Jennifer (Sarah Polley), and her boyfriend view the impending catastrophe as a Woodstockian festival and intend to boogie until they drop. A high school French teacher, Mrs. Carlton (Genevieve Bujold), visits her former students. Menzies (Michael McMurtry), an aspiring classic pianist, schedules his debut recital for the final night, playing to a nearly deserted concert hall.

The influence of Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan suffuses Last Night. Several cast members have previously appeared in Egoyan’s movies, including Polley (the accident survivor/incest victim in The Sweet Hereafter), McKellar himself (The Adjuster, Exotica) and Egoyan’s eccentric actress wife, Arsinee Khanjian, who has a cameo as a mother trapped with her daughter in a derelict streetcar. McKellar’s thematic concerns and visual style also betray Egoyan’s example. As in the latter’s Family Viewing and Speaking Parts, Last Night’s characters alternately cower behind or struggle to break through their self-imposed cages of protective isolation to make some kind of meaningful connection with others. (Sandra twice asserts, “There’s something to be said for human companionship.”) Typically, they are photographed and rigidly framed in the arid spaces of impersonal contemporary apartments, architectural metaphors for their alienation.

But, to judge from this first impressive sample, McKellar has a warmer, more generous sensibility than Egoyan’s, which usually yields the cinematic equivalent of frostbite. McKellar’s vision of the apocalypse allows plenty of room for wry, dark humor. (As Patrick leaves Craig’s apartment, he automatically says, “See you,” only to be tartly reminded, “No, you won’t.”) Thanks to McKellar’s extensive experience as a stage and screen actor, he understands that his performers need time to create densely layered characters. Oh stands out as the stranded Sandra, initially guarded but gradually opening up to expose flashes of naked emotional intensity. Rennie clearly delights in playing a lapsed medical student who has totally focused his energies on sexual conquest. (The scene in which, having already scored with two women in less than four hours, he tries to seduce Patrick is a sly, delicately shaded game of cat and mouse.) The always intriguing Bujold, looking as haggard as the morning after the last night, blends pedagogy, irony, eroticism, and pathos in her unorthodox reunions with her ex-students.

One doesn’t expect to leave a movie about the end of the world feeling hopeful, but Last Night, despite its cool style and aloof characters, is surprisingly, unsentimentally uplifting. At the moment when the global death knell sounds, all of the aforementioned characters (and several more that I have not discussed for the sake of concealing plot twists) accept their fates with courage and without compromise. And in the unforgettable closing shot, a valedictory gesture of tenderness triumphs over death.

I liked Last Night even more after a second viewing, which allowed me to appreciate the screenplay’s intricate construction and artful use of foreshadowing. But even moviegoers who don’t share my enthusiasm for McKellar’s film will nonetheless be hooked by the practical questions it poses about final choices. Which CD to select as the last music you’ll ever hear? Dress casual or wear your finest clothes? A farewell bottle of expensive wine or a guilt-free pint of Ben and Jerry’s? CP