Despite taking some big metaphysical swings with its premise, Mali Elfman’s two-hander is ultimately a retreading of standard indie film beats.
One of the great ironies of human existence is that death, the very thing we spend our lives trying to avoid, is the source of much of life’s meaning. That’s one of the points that Jean-Paul Sartre makes in “No Exit,” his landmark play that follows three deceased humans whose eternal punishment consists of being locked in a room and forced to make conversation forever. Our most precious moments are precious because they eventually expire — do anything for long enough and it ultimately becomes drudgery.
As you might expect from its title, “Next Exit” constantly riffs on Sartre’s dramatic existentialism and shares his interest in what happens when humans are confined together. Mali Elfman’s directorial debut is set in a world where scientists have definitively proven that ghosts are real, with indisputable video evidence showing that we can return to haunt the people we love (and hate) after we die. That news has freed many people from their fear of death, but it also catalyzed a dramatic shift in everyone’s priorities. Robberies have dropped to almost zero (holding somebody at gunpoint just isn’t as convincing as it used to be), and news of a suicide is barely more notable than the latest baseball score.
The scientist who discovered this phenomenon (Karen Gillan) now leads Life Beyond, a popular assisted suicide program that meticulously ensures its subjects are able to return as ghosts. It attracts Rose (Katie Parker) and Teddy (Rahul Kohli), two strangers with a death wish who find themselves accepted as research subjects. She’s completely bored of human existence and ready to die, while he’s chasing the glory of participating in such an important chapter of humanity’s exploration of the universe. The only thing standing between them and death is a cross-country drive to San Francisco.
It’s fascinating to imagine how human society would adjust to the news that life is no longer finite, but Elfman’s actual film never quite lives up to the brilliance of its premise. Parker and Kohli both give excellent performances, but the majority of “Next Exit” is hard to distinguish from the standard road trip dramas that pop up at Sundance every year.
Rose and Teddy meet at a rental car lot, where they’re both trying to pick up the vehicles that Life Beyond was supposed to provide for them. But even in a world where ghosts exist, the idea of an efficient rental car company is just too outlandish to be real. A logistical snafu forces them to share one car during the last road trip they’ll ever take.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they’re both about to die, the reluctant carpoolers immediately start getting on each other’s nerves. She just wants to get this over with, but he’s trying his best to enjoy the ride. Despite her irritation with his constant joking, they slowly start to bond over a few long nights of drinking. Love is soon in the air, and the drive to their own deathbeds starts to feel a bit less urgent. They find time to check some fun items off their bucket lists, and they help each other confront the family members who made them want to die in the first place. Despite fluctuating between life’s highest highs and lowest lows, the trip makes for a pretty convincing argument that what we have going on this planet is better than being a ghost.
It’s never quite clear why Rose and Teddy despise each other at first, and their unrealistically sharp banter leaves little mystery about how they’ll feel about each other after their cross country trip. And while Elfman does an extremely competent job of demonstrating the way trauma has shaped their lives, both of their responses to that trauma seem better suited to our world than that of the film. As the story unfolds, it becomes harder and harder to believe that these two characters are so laser-focused on events from their childhoods instead of, you know, the news that God is real.
That missed opportunity is what ultimately separates “Next Exit” from the best films about the pros and cons of living. From “It’s a Wonderful Life” to “Harold and Maude,” cinema history is filled with death-obsessed protagonists who ultimately choose to keep living. But in those films, the choice is between existence and nonexistence, with characters ultimately deciding that a beautiful-but-flawed something is preferable to nothing.
The proof of an afterlife that Rose and Teddy are blessed (or cursed) with complicates things for them, but the film’s worldview largely ignores that fantasy in favor of a lesson that’s applicable to our world. In “No Exit,” Sartre presents Hell as an eternity spent with other people. In “Next Exit,” human relationships can be heaven because we don’t have an eternity.
Magnolia Pictures will release “Next Exit” in theaters and on VOD on Friday, November 4.