Aoife Crehan’s debut feature, The Last Right, is a twisty comedy caper that sees a career-focused lawyer, Daniel Murphy (Michiel Huisman), reluctantly take on a mission to repatriate a stranger’s body, and reconnect with his younger brother in Ireland following the death of their mother.
Daniel Murphy is not the kind of character we root for. He is a self-centred guy who gives little mind to the needs of others, and pushes any distractions or inconveniences out of his life. An on-track lawyer in New York City, he dedicates all of his time to climbing the legal ladder.
The camera shows us this with views of his sparsely decorated apartment, and Daniel affirms it in the silent, head-down, phone-on cab ride to the airport in the film’s opening sequence. And as he takes his seat for a flight back to Ireland, we see it in a curt exchange with an elderly gentleman sitting next to him.
Like everything that doesn’t directly affect him, Daniel only half-listens to his travelling companion, making a pained face as the man attempts to engage him in conversation. The two actually have a lot in common. They’re both traveling home for funerals: Daniel for his mother’s and the old fella, Padraig (Jim Norton), for his estranged brother’s.
Daniel is more interested in fiddling with the inflight entertainment than chatting with Padraig, who nevertheless takes a shine to Daniel. If only Daniel had listened, he might have been able to dissuade Padraig from naming him his next of kin. Padraig expires somewhere over the Atlantic, and by the time the plane touches down, Daniel is left to take care of his corpse. He ignores Padraig’s dying wishes just as he ignored him in life.
At his old family home, Daniel’s situation is no less complicated. His relationship with his teenage brother Louis (Samuel Bottomley) is fraught from years of physical and emotional distance. They are strangers to one another. Louis is on the autism spectrum and likes to do things to his own rhythm. Every day, he designates a song to accompany him throughout the day. He only eats at particular times and is afraid of the dark.
Try as Daniel might to forget it, there’s still the matter of Padraig’s body to take care of. Louis feels for the man and pushes Daniel to fulfil Padraig’s dying wish to be buried with his brother on Rathlin Island off the north Antrim coast. Along for the ride is Mary (Niamh Algar), a local mortician looking to right some wrongs of her own. Making off with the corpse raises the attention of the local Gardaí, and so begins a Smokey and the Bandit-style pursuit.
There’s a lot of setup to the premise of The Last Right, but that is indicative of one of the joys of the film, which heaps complications on the travelling party. Often very funny, at times incredibly tragic, it’s a remarkable balancing act of shifting tones.
The journey gives the trio a chance to connect, or in the case of Louis and Daniel, reconnect. In the early stages of the trip Mary comments that the brothers’ relationship is like Rain Man, a comparison Louis is quick to dismiss. By the midpoint of the film she’s comparing it to_ Eastenders_ instead, and Louis and Daniel can’t argue. I won’t get into the particulars of what brings that comment about, but as with every aspect of Daniel’s life, complications abound.
Crehan handles the interplay between the three passengers well, and the film’s most dramatic moments are always accented by jokes. Clever editing makes punchlines out of action and reaction, as we see crotchety Detective Crowley (Colm Meaney) play catch-up with the ludicrous situation unfolding in his jurisdiction.
Equally amusing are Meaney’s interactions with Sheila O’Neill (Eleanor O’Brien), a naive new recruit who runs up against the detective’s world-weariness. Their relationship has the feeling of a great, sweary comedic double act, with a good cop/bad cop vibe that never fails to raise a smile.
As I mentioned, Daniel is not an immediately likeable character. Crehan’s script doesn’t let him off lightly. “Asshole” is the word most often used to describe Daniel, by himself, by Louis, by Sarah and by anyone else who has the displeasure of encountering him. There is, eventually, a change in Daniel, but it comes after a series of failed attempts and witless self-sabotage.
To Daniel, saying that he’s an asshole is enough to let him off the hook. It’s a kind of self-deprecation that gives the impression that he’s owning up to his mistakes, but ultimately his words are hollow. Still, Huisman makes Daniel just about likeable: mostly we’re laughing at his expense, and feeling sorry for those around him.
For Sarah and Louis, Daniel’s temporary make-goods are endlessly frustrating. When he’s not calling himself an asshole with mock conviction, they’re calling him one in all seriousness, through tears or gritted teeth, depending on his transgression.
The film’s soundtrack takes digs at Daniel too. Louis picks Denis Leary’s novelty song “Asshole” to score their car journey. As with the visuals and the dialogue, Crehan knows when to turn up the soundtrack at just the right moment to underline a gag.
As you might have guessed, Daniel eventually finds some humility and really faces up to his actions. There’s a skillfulness in how this inevitable conclusion comes about. Crehan undercuts Daniel’s change of character again and again, and we never really know if he’s changed for good until he really has. This comes after one of the film’s standout sequences, on Rathlin Island, which pulls us from one extreme of emotion to another.
Crehan’s greatest skill is giving the audience what it wants on her own terms. It’s an admirable gamble that pays off for Crehan and The Last Right as a whole. The narrative swerves that continue right up to the close of the film feel like the haphazard road trip we’ve just witnessed. Through the course of the film, we’ve travelled the highways and byways of the human soul, with stops off at love, hate and all variants in between.
The saying goes that it’s the journey rather than the destination that makes a trip. For Daniel, Sarah and Louis, it’s the journey that brings them together as much as it pushes them apart. With Crehan at the helm and a great cast of main and supporting actors, The Last Right is a trip worth taking for the journey and the destination.