Mali Elfman’s feature debut Next Exit is a classic case of false advertising. At a glance, the movie looks like a slice of sci-fi horror about prioritizing progress over fundamental human compassion, when Dr. Stevenson (Karen Gillan) proves the existence of an afterlife. What consequences will be wrought upon Earth and all mankind by Dr. Stevensen’s mad ambitions to study the realm of the dead? Are Rose (Katie Parker) and Teddy (Rahul Kohli) brave enough to cross over to the other side and stop the macabre doctor’s schemes? (And what cruel twist lurks in the denouement?)
It’s Gillan’s casting that really pushes Next Exit into the realm of preconception. Whether acting in small, idiosyncratic films like Dual or king-sized events a la [insert Marvel movie title here], Gillan casts a long shadow in her roles—even when they require she only appear on screen for a mere handful of minutes. Next Exit smartly employs her as mostly a background figure who’s had meteoric impact on culture and mankind writ large, including skyrocketing suicide and homicide rates. Elfman latches onto Rose and Teddy instead.
As Rose, Parker lends Next Exit a sardonic tone. As Teddy, Kohli lends it wiseass British wit and heart. They’re a classic odd couple, forced together when their respective plans to travel to San Francisco to serve as two more guinea pigs in Stevenson’s experiments go bust. Apparently, agreeing to commit assisted suicide for science doesn’t exempt you from car rental paperwork or carrying an in-date license, so Rose and Teddy begrudgingly combine their resources and drive together from New York City to the Bay Area, where they plan to die. Fun times. Rose isn’t much for interaction. Teddy likes to talk. The combination is something like oil and vinegar, or maybe sandpaper and skin.
Elfman wants her audience to bask in the caustic gallows humor of Rose and Teddy’s circumstances. Next Exit isn’t sci-fi about whether or not we should; it’s about what happens when we do. Elfman’s world-building creates a framework where arguments about and protests against Life Beyond, Stevenson’s soul-tracking study, occur only in the narrative margins. The main story belongs to the “two people talking” and “road trip comedy” genres. Stevenson may have accepted Rose and Teddy as subjects in Life Beyond, but Elfman has chosen them to bear witness to an America that has irrevocably changed under the influence of profound existential knowledge.
“Thank you for the help,” reads a crumpled note Teddy pries from the hands of a man who leaps in front of their car. It’s a sad fact of our contemporary cultural apathy that suicide rates are what they are in the United States. It’s a sadder fact in Next Exit that suicide functions as a literal escape instead of a figurative one, and that societal stresses we’re familiar with in 2022 are felt in Elfman’s script. In radio broadcasts, we hear the woes of an incumbent generation burdened by colossal debt in a cost prohibitive housing market, working jobs that don’t pay enough. Meanwhile, Teddy, swayed by Stevenson’s smarmy propagandic comparisons of Life Beyond participants as “pioneers,” wants to do something great with his life because his life hasn’t gone the way he wanted it. Rose, meanwhile, is genuinely haunted by crushing guilt, which makes death an attractive option.
It’s Rose’s story that lets horror bleed into Next Exit. Every time she glances in a mirror, or a blank TV screen, and sees a shadowy, menacing figure staring back at her. Every time, she panics. But the specter isn’t of the Grudge or Ring persuasion. Elfman must have known what she was doing, casting Parker and Kohli as her leads: They’re Mike Flanagan alums. The horrors of Next Exit’s plot take the form of deep-rooted personal grief, and in the Flanagan playbook that naturally leads to the catharsis of reconciliation. The film takes viewers to that healing space in due time, preferring to ramble and roam so Teddy and Rose have room to grow as characters. It’s about America, but it’s chiefly about two Americans. (Well, one American and an expat Brit.)
The Flanagan affinity is impossible to miss. But Next Exit plays closer to Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, which likewise bucked its genre’s conventions: Rather than sticking to a broad scope, Edwards focused on two everyday people pushed together by chance while crossing perilous territory. Elfman’s structure is loose, but assured in where it’s heading. There’s intimacy to her filmmaking that invites the audience to care for Rose and Teddy even when they’re at their most acerbic, which just makes their sweeter moments all the better. We’re with them in the car, in hotel rooms, at dive bars, and while they stargaze. We’re with them in Life Beyond, and we’re with them when they arrive at what awaits them past Stevenson’s designs. If Elfman’s destination is grim, the journey she takes to get there is palliative.
Director: Mali Elfman
Writer: Mali Elfman
Starring: Katie Parker, Rahul Kohli, Jim Ortlieb, Karen Gillan, Diva Zappa
Release Date: November 4, 2022
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.