Fantasia 2022: Next Exit is a Life-Affirming Road Trip to Death

Image Courtesy of the Fantasia International Film Festival

What if there was irrefutable proof of the existence of ghosts? At first, The fascination would overtake the discovery, but if you think about the implications a discovery like that would have on the natural world, the result could redefine society. A mortal consciousness reaches a singularity and continues after its separation from the flesh. Death might be welcomed, and the undeniable knowledge that beyond this life lies something more could be alluring. Next Exit considers these ramifications as it brings together a pair of volunteers for death on a cross-country road trip. 

Teddy sits inside of a diner as Rose knocks on the window.

A research scientist makes national news when she provides proof of the existence of ghosts. The audience watches as a young boy reconnects with his father, playing cards on the edge of his bed, and two sides of a political argument begin. The right to die has been something we’ve fought around for some time, though many religious groups and affiliations typically get involved, making a case for things they know nothing about. In Next Exit, Dr. Stevenson’s (Dual’s Karen Gillan) proof even causes the devout to consider the next step in their spiritual journey earlier than expected. 

Amidst this newfound societal panic, we meet Teddy (Midnight Mass’ Rahul Kohli) and Rose (The Haunting of Hill House’s Katie Parker) as they prepare to end their lives in favor of what comes next. Teddy, bubbly and good-natured, contends the end will cement his place in history and give his life meaning, and Rose, who sees ghosts, is standoffish and looking to propel herself away from a living nightmare. Their first encounter at a rental car counter (try saying that five times fast) isn’t as kismet as it seems, as both are frustrated by the companies’ policies and decide to travel across the country together.  

Any critic will tell you that it’s glaringly obvious where Next Exit is going, and it isn’t like we haven’t seen various versions of this story before. Lately, the road trip mechanic has been a staple of film festival delights. Movies like Threshold or How It Ends have been big hits with audiences looking for catharsis, whether it be across the country or just to the other side of town. Next Exit feels a lot like the latter, as serendipitous interactions with people on their journey add depth to the trip, avoiding the trappings of How It Ends’ serial qualities, where every new supporting role introduction feels like a secluded skit in an overall connected storyline. 

Rose and Teddy look behind them in what looks to be shock.

The way writer-director Mali Elfman proposes perspective in the film is contemplative and absorbing. The strangers offer insights into the world from various sides of the spiritual spectrum, one traditional, one haunted, and one communal. In a Charles Dickens sort of way, it broadens the horizons of Rose and Teddy’s journey. Elfman also litters in a grim Easter egg early on in the film that many won’t catch but offers a quirky, morbid charm. The name of the rental car company, Charon, shares the same name as the mythological ferryman who delivers souls across the waters of Hades to be judged. One could theorize that this is as much a trip out of hell as a pilgrimage to death.

It’s strange to find a film that’s both death-positive and, somehow, intrinsically life-affirming. Neither Rose nor Teddy feels as though their decision is actually affecting the quality of their life. They see death as a new adventure, and with the recent discovery, they’re hopeful that what’s next for them will be better than the pain they’ve faced in this one. But on their trip, they start to consider that maybe they’re not done with the beauty of this place quite yet. Next Exit reminds us to live every day like it’s our last so that we aren’t living our lives tethered to the burdens of things left unsaid. Mali Elfman has made a beautiful film, and it’s uncanny to me how this movie took ten years to get funded. It’s a haunting and beautiful wanderlust film, fearless, funny, and cheer-worthy.  

Next Exit isn’t a horror staple but more of an adjacent film to the genre, dealing with the macabre themes of ghosts, death, and trauma. The ghosts work almost allegorically in the movie as a weighty reminder of regret and loss, tormenting the living as they torture themselves. Clues throughout the film infer why some can see ghosts and others can’t, resonating profoundly with audience members affected by various maladies such as depression. 

Rose and Teddy stand inside of a bathroom, staring at eachother in the mirror.

The film lands mainly in the dramedy category, with Kohli and Parker beginning as icy to each other as the wintery look of the start of the film, slowly warming up to each other before reaching the southwest. The jokes are good but delivered better thanks to the fantastic lead actors. I found Kohli stole scenes in some instances, especially during and just after an affecting barroom scene brimming with character emotion and tension concerning Teddy’s backstory.  

On the technical end, the music is on point, including a lovely theme by the director’s father, four-time academy-award nominee Danny Elfman. However, the patience of the film’s cinematography is certainly captivating. Deftly dark in places and then beautifully bright, Next Exit’s lovely contrast adds atmosphere like no other mechanic. The grey, thick fog at times also helps recognize these travelers existing as ghosts themselves, returning to life as they begin enjoying each other’s company. Azuli Anderson won the Tribeca Film Festival award for best cinematography at Tribeca Film Festival, and I can’t imagine it won’t be a contender at Fantasia as well.  

Mali Elfman has made a splendidly hopeful picture with a fairytale-like quality. Patient and well-paced, morbidly clever, and lovingly put together. Whether you can guess the film’s ending or not, the pair’s voyage, and the stories within, are deeply effective. Next Exit is a trip worth taking. 

Next Exit played on July 18 as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival.  

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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