**Trigger Warning: Next Exit explores concepts of life and death, which involves discussion/examination of self-harm, suicidal ideation, and euthanasia.**
“On this bridge,” Lorca warns, “life is not a dream. Beware. And beware. And beware.” And so many think because Then happened, Now isn’t. But didn’t I mention the ongoing “wow” is happening right now? We are all co-authors of this dancing exuberance where even our inabilities are having a roast. We are the authors of ourselves, co-authoring a gigantic Dostoevsky novel, starring clowns. This entire thing we’re involved with called the world, is an opportunity to exhibit how exciting alienation can be. Life is a matter of a miracle that is collected over time by moments, flabbergasted to be in each other’s presence. …
– Timothy “Speed” Levitch, Waking Life
With film series like Ghostbusters (1984-2021) and The Conjuring (2013-TBD), as well as television series like Supernatural (2005-2020) and Ghosts (2021 – TBD), modern audiences are as likely to believe in the existence of spirits (benevolent and malevolent) as they are holy spirits. For all the folks who claim to have had a paranormal experience, there are about as many who have debunked others. Most modern faiths possess in their foundational belief systems a quest to discern if there is life after death and what that looks like. Is it bouncing on clouds with your loved ones or roasting in eternal flames all alone? Is it being placed in your favorite memory for eternity or is it being trapped in your biggest regret? Or is it something else, stuck as an incorporeal entity on the mortal plane? After writing and directing several shorts and producing even more features, creative Mali Elfman makes her feature-length directorial debut with Next Exit, an ambitious drama which appears to tackle the question of the afterlife. In reality, Next Exit is an exploration of the Now and the power it brings.
After proof is released of contact with a deceased person’s spirit, scientist Dr. Stevensen (Karen Gillan) sets up trials in order to examine and explore the phenomenon. In order to study this further, Stevensen puts out a call for willing participants to be gently shuffled off in an effort to learn more and determine the rules of why some return as spirits and others don’t. For their own respective reasons, Rose (Katie Parker) and Teddy (Rahul Kohli) sign-up, intending to enjoy one last drive before taking part in the study, except, upon arriving to pick up their car rental, each discover they are missing a vital ingredient to formally sign for the vehicle. With no other choice, the two share the ride in order to reach their destination, not realizing that quest is about to turn into a journey.
There’s a delicate balance at play throughout Next Exit wherein the sacred and the profane are explored without tipping over too far one way or another. Elfman’s script isn’t a tome for disproving religion (in-film billboards ask where Jesus is among the spirits) nor is it the next gospel (if there are spirits then there is an afterlife to go to). Rather, it’s all fodder and dressing to allow for a deeper discussion of self-destruction. In order to accomplish this, though, Elfman must understand what terrifies us and how to use that as a catalyst for her characters. In a very low-fi manner, Elfman uses the total darkness and the *idea* of something being there in order to create disquiet among the characters and, thus, the audience. Like a more traditional horror tale where we think we see something, a shape in the darkness, so do specters appear within Next Exit, appearing to move ever closer, generating terror from the unknown. The thing is that, through Elfman’s narrative conceit, we know what the figure is through the characters, so the terror doesn’t come from the unknowing but from the knowing and the weight of what that means. This brilliantly utilizes the tropes of regular horror within the scope of an atypical drama that’s also a road trip dark comedy. You can’t just throw these things together unless you understand how they work and are then able to blend them in a way that achieves all the goals. For Next Exit, that means addressing the ghost in the room first, allowing it to terrify so that the horror of the unknown is gone so that it can manifest as something else. Smartly, Elfman uses manifestations sparingly, bringing them out only when they enhance the story, never for show. Next Exit is not intended to rile audiences, but to provoke them into thinking about themselves and the ghosts that haunt them.
A major credit to Elfman is the script itself. The text is a mixture of genres, never wildly stepping too far into one or another, allowing the film to provide some cheeky lightness into the proceedings. The rental car company Dr. Stevensen’s project secured cars from? Charon Rental…as in the boatman to ferry deceased souls across the river Styx in Greek mythology. A hitchhiker the duo picks up who just so happens to arrive just when they need and leave as quickly, her name is Karma (Diva Zappa). These moments enable the two strangers (and the audience) grow more comfortable over time so that the exploration of self, of desire, and of regret can take place without presumption or penalty. These moments of levity allow the characters and audience to laugh at the ridiculousness of Rose and Teddy’s pilgrimage, even though the two are decidedly serious about their undertaking. The reasons for their quests come slowly and with realistic profundity, each handled with a blend of heart and hurt that never loses sight of the human question at the heart of it: what is the purpose of living?
This is an entirely personal question and one which is explored through the various views of the main two, played by Parker and Kohli, and a few of the people they come across on their journey from New York City to San Francisco. The script does a solid job of not making grand statements regarding what it thinks is the true truth; instead, it creates opportunities to explore the singular experiences of Rose and Teddy resulting in a film that’s mostly a two-hander between Parker and Kohli, each offering exceptional and heartbreaking performances in their own way. One specific scene (which I will not detail to preserve the experience) consists solely of the two actors, their physical proximity, their vocal delivery, and facial expressions each conveying meaning and intent as the characters rail against one another. It requires a gifted actor to communicate the subconscious through action and expression, which the two certainly are, especially Kohli. In this particular scene, he goes from frustration and shame to directed, almost blind rage, and back to Teddy’s conscious self and it’s all visible on Kohli’s face. We can see the transition from one perspective to another, the shift in Teddy’s mentality as it happens, and it is extraordinary. The scene itself is absolutely brutal, perhaps the most ferocious in the film given the less invasive though more present methods which Rose is explored. But it’s one for the highlight reel, for the year, and for the actors’ careers. That this scene isn’t the most poignant, even if it feels like a pinnacle, is rather astonishing and Elfman and her cast stick the landing with empathy and grace.
There are several moments in Next Exit where characters could easily be treated as punchlines based on their faith, their appearance, or where they are. Any time a presumption is made, it’s quickly handled, underscoring that there is no right or wrong, there is only what is happening right now and the choice that’s being made. We get this with the delightful Karma, we get this with the helpful and timely Father Jack (Tongayi Chirisa), and with the weary John (Tim Griffin). Each are treated as individuals, even as someone tries to make them into a joke or a warning, Elfman makes sure that none are mislabeled or reframed outside of who they are. Additionally, there are a few moments in which Next Exit feels like it’s going to walk the worn road of every road trip dramedy and, friends, I am grateful that Elfman walks the path and makes it her own with a unique approach turning the trite into something far more organic and real.
Amid the pain and suffering on display throughout the film, Elfman presents a necessary empathy, a suggestion that we’re all our own arbiters of good or evil and that the ghosts which follow us are of our own making. This creates a notion that our punishment (in life or death) is of our own making and is entirely created by how we perceive ourselves or how we believe others perceive us. If Jean-Paul Sartre believed that hell is other people via his work No Exit, then I can’t help but think that Elfman believes in the endless opportunity of what’s possible from people when we consider that life is a journey, not a quest, and that there’s always another exit after the one we think we’ve passed. At the very least, I think it’s fair to presume that Elfman thinks this as the film isn’t over when the credits start, so stick around to ensure you hear the start of the next adventure.
Screening during the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official Next Exit Tribeca webpage.
For more information on Mali Elfman and her work, head to her official website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.