If it wasn’t abundantly clear in my posts on Blue Ruin and Joe, one of my favorite emerging subgenres is that of the bleak-as-fuck country noir thriller/drama. For prime examples of this movement, one can look to the literary works of Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone, Tomato Red, The Outlaw Album) or the cinematic ones of Jeff Nichols (Mud, Shotgun Stories) and other recent standouts like Jim Mickle’s Cold in July.
A recurring pattern of revenge and vigilante justice can be found in all these titles. There’s also a lot of drinking, heartbreak, mayhem and embittered rednecks killin’ on other nearby rednecks for fuckin’ with their kinfolk. Does the genre rely a bit heavily on our pleasure in viewing an exploited archetype? Perhaps. (If you want to go down that road, here’s a great article on the genesis of country noir.)
If you’ve made it through all the movies I’ve mentioned, however, and aren’t too offended by a little yokel-on-yokel bloodlettin’, let me recommend another one that recently hit Netflix…
Before I get your hopes up, let me state off the bat that The Living is simply not as strong a country noir showing as Blue Ruin or Joe. It’s a film that operates in the very particular, bleak vein of those films and executes well in at least a few of the areas they did.
I was hooked immediately by the film’s opening credits. Sublime photography of desolate Pennsylavania farmland—coupled with a forlorn Michael Hurley ballad that sounds like something Townes Van Zandt and Hank Williams would have played together in purgatory—evoke an ominous air of doom. While not exactly as audiovisually brilliant as the use of Little Willie John’s “No Regrets” in Blue Ruin, it still set the stage for some very eerie, fucked up hilljackery to commence.
And then we meet Teddy, an alcoholic who wakes up bloodied on the rug one morning and finds both his wedding ring and his wife missing. Teddy soon finds out that in a drunken furor, he beat his Molly into a bloody pulp. Contrition brings wifey back home, despite the warnings of her tough, chain-smoking mammy (Joelle Carter, looking less like her character Ava from Justified and more like Dale Dickey from Winter’s Bone and the Breaking Bad “ATM episode”).
Then there’s Molly’s brother Gordon, a weak simpleton who wants revenge on Teddy but doesn’t have the cojones to get his hands dirty. That is until a shady friend says he knows a guy who takes care of people. “You sure he’s good,” Teddy asks. “I’m sure he’s cheap,” homey replies. And fortunately for us, mystery hitman ends up being the the strongest element of the entire film.
You probably don’t know Chris Mulkey’s name, but you’ll know his face (and I’ll omit it here so as not to play spoiler). His depiction of a weathered, barstool-philosophizing ex-con assassin echoes a rube-ish hybrid of Anton Chigurh and Rust Cohle (in his beer can origami days).
As a fount of deadpan psycopathic wisdom, Mulkey delivers some of the film’s most memorable scenes, including a parable about a dying mountain lion cub that’s equal parts Cormac McCarthy and Bret Easton Ellis. This bit solidifies the film’s otherwise generically vague title, and also accomplishes that rare feat of bringing palpable humanity to a monster.
The Living also excels in its casting, predicated on a who’s-who of B-actors from both terrific horror and hillbilly cinema. For starters, you’ve got two leads from two of the more memorable horror movies of the past decade (Jocelin Donahue from House of the Devil and and Fran Kranz from Cabin in the Woods). Then there’s vets of bleak, country shows like Carter and Mulkey (both of whom did stints on Justified).
An area where the film falters, as is often the case, is in the character of the young, virgin-eyed protagonist (Kenny Wormald’s Gordon). He plays the criminally green, simpleton card just a little too heavy, and seeing as the majority of his scenes are with Mulkey, the awkward effort is even more pronounced. (In lieu of the otherwise-strong and genre-specific casting, I’m assuming this film simply didn’t have the budget for Tye Sheridan.)
In all, The Living certainly does not have that raw, improvisational edge that made Joe so fantastic, nor the attention to atmospheric detail that lifted both that film and Blue Ruin to new heights of country noir-dom. But Mulkey’s deranged performance is worth the brisk 89-minute run time alone. And for anyone as smitten as myself with this wave of menacingly bleak hill-folk flicks (again—Winter’s Bone, Shotgun Stories, Joe, Cold in July, Blue Ruin, etc.), it’s a welcome addition to the canon.
GRADE: B / B+