Sir Alfred once said, “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.” Committing this truism to memory would still serve any film student well.
It’s stunning how few filmmakers remember that when writing, casting and producing their independent films. Write a weighty villain, spend the cash on hiring a quality heavy to play him or her.
Writer-director Jack Bryan learned that for his feature “The Living.” He had a lean, gripping murder-for-hire tale with a sharp and troubling undertow of what it takes to be a man in some corners of the culture. But it wouldn’t work without Chris Mulkey, playing a heartless sociopath ex-con hired to kill a man.
Mulkey’s credits go back to “48 Hrs.” and “The Long Riders,” through TV’s “Twin Peaks” to “Grimm” and “Scandal.” There are echoes of every hard man he’s ever portrayed in Howard, the redneck murderer-philosopher Gordon (Kenny Wormald) pays $2,000 to punish his abusive drunk of a brother-in-law.
Teddy (Fran Kranz of “The Cabin in the Woods”) woke up one morning with a hangover, bruised fists and a bloodied finger. Somebody took his wedding ring off after he passed out.
That someone was his willowy wife (Jocelin Donahue of “Insidious, Chapter 2”). She ran off to mom’s house covered in bruises. Mom (veteran character actress Joelle Carter) is livid when her daughter Molly returns to the creep. She’s even madder at the cowering son (Wormald) who did nothing to stop it.
“I hope you’re half as ashamed of you as I am.”
Gordon mouths off to a co-worker, the co-worker says he knows a guy who knows a guy, and next thing you know the kid has set events in motion he has no control over.
Bryan sends Gordon from rural Pennsylvania, the film’s setting, to Mississippi, in search of Howard. And then he has events back home supersede the mission Gordon has undertaken. Molly has her own ways of punishing Teddy.
“You’re not my husband again until I say so,” she growls. He has to court her. First date? Everybody’s favorite restaurant. She wants their friends to see what he did to her.
And Teddy takes it, because maybe he’s not a bad man, maybe it’s the alcohol that’s the source of their issues.Mom’s lectures go unheeded.
“Men always change until you give’em a chance to change back.”
Gordon, meanwhile, is getting an education from Howard, who grows scarier and more unpredictable with every mile they travel from Mississippi back to Pennsylvania.
“You never gonna be a man in your own mind unless this thing is finished,” Howard concludes. “And you ain’t doin’ it yourself.” He’s not ” man enough.”
Mulkey is chilling, first moment to last, in this brutal, blood-stained film noir. The moral subtext gives the film heft, the performances make it real and Mulkey makes “The Living” fear the man who doesn’t fear death, a Devil released from Hell who knows it’s not about the killing or the killed, but the guilt carried by “those left behind.”
Cast: Fran Kranz, Jocelin Donahue, Kenny Wormald, Chris Mulkey, Joelle Carter
Credits: Written and directed by Jack Bryan. A Monterey Media release.
Running time: 1:31