The Living on Netflix Instant: A country-noir thriller for fans of Blue Ruin and Joe

the living jocelin donahue
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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…

The Living
the living movie Kenny Wormald shotgun
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 farmlandcoupled with a forlorn Michael Hurley ballad that sounds like something Townes Van Zandt and Hank Williams would have played together in purgatoryevoke 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”).

Joelle Carter as Ava and Dale Dickey in Winter's Bone look like Joelle Carter in The Living

Even Ava Crowder has her bad days…

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).

Rust Cohle lone star beer can origami

“I quit my detectivin’ job but I been sellin’ these cute little fuckers on Etsy for $12 a pop. It’s all about shapin’ a flat circle, amigo…”

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.)
Tye Sheridan better call saul

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+
IMDb: 6.3

-Sam Adams

The best of Netflix Instant if bleak, thrilling cinema is your ASMR: Part II

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There are times when an ordinary man needs to take matters into his hands, and more often than not, those hands end up soaked in blood. While us level-headed civilians may not partake in or even advocate for vigilante justice, the vicarious thrill of watching Joe Citizen exact revenge on the big screen is undeniable. (There’s a reason why the great Charlie Bronson was able to rattle off four Death Wish sequels.)

These films can be even more intriguing when the protagonist isn’t, say, a gun-savvy war vet (see: Clint Eastwood’s incredible performance in the otherwise-misguided Gran Torino), but rather a timid, everyday man who’s been trampled into submission by forces he’s always seen as omnipotent and beyond his control. When the switch turns for that guy, we want to know what unfolds. After all, you recognize him, don’t you?

Blue Ruin
Quentin Tarantino has made a career of dusting off forgotten pop hits and pairing them with film sequences that, in some parallel universe, they were no doubt recorded for. This brand of audiovisual synergy is a formula that most likely has Lars Von Trier and adherents of the Dogme movement screaming, “Go make a fucking music video, already!”

My two cents would be that a great scene paired with a great song is simply a way of elevating the artform and increasing its potency, thus further satisfying the beholder. Consider the scene a drug like ecstasy, and consider the song as getting head. They’re both dandy on their own, but when you’re rolling, are you really gonna turn down that added stimulation? It’s called a heightened fucking experience, amigo.

What does this have to do with Blue Ruin, one might ask? Well, alongside that Dwight Twilley song in You’re Next, I’d argue that writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s use of Little Willie John’s “No Regrets” is among this year’s best audiovisual sequences. Maybe you should watch the movie yourself and then listen to the song, but since I’ve spent this much time waxing poetic, here’s some aural ecstasy (sans oral ecstasy):

To avoid spoilers, I won’t address why this song works so beautifully in Blue Ruin. So let’s start from the top. The film opens by introducing a skittish, hobo-bearded fellow who breaks into homes to take baths, eats leftovers out of trash bins near the Delaware shore and “lives” out of his car. I say “lives,” because it’s clear from the get-go that Dwight (Macon Blair) is more dwelling in the shadow of some dark past than actually spending any time interacting with the present. As he tells his sister in an early scene with very sparse dialogue, “I’m not used to talking this much.” To be fair, if there’s anything Wayne’s World taught us, it’s that there’s not a whole lot to be said about The Diamond State…

We soon find out what dark secret Dwight is dwelling on and, of course, facing it head-on is his only means of moving forward, regardless of the bloodshed involved. Suffice it to say that Saulnier wastes no time in getting the mayhem underway.

What’s refreshing about this revenge tale is that it doesn’t merely settle for the template set by great films like Deliverance or Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, wherein the meek man becomes the he-man. The transformation in Dwight is more subtle, and often a product of dumb luck rather than heroics (look for a great side role from Devin Ratray as a gun-loving, metalhead survivalist).

Blue Ruin

Blue Ruin, aka that movie where Nathan Lane goes apeshit.

When the buckets of blood have finally washed away, Blue Ruin is a bittersweet symphony about loss and redemption via vigilante justice. It also has a wonderfully grim sense of humor, specifically when that Little Willie John song comes into play.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 7.1  

God Bless America

God Bless America

There will be blood, and lots of it.

 Consider writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait’s maniacally dark God Bless America as a hybrid of Ned Judge’s Idiocracy and the 1970 hippie slaughter-fest Joe (no, not David Gordon Green’s mesmerizing Nicolas Cage flick, which we’ll discuss soon enough). Then throw in a healthy dose of Taxi Driver for good measure.

But wait, did you say “writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait”? Yes, the voice behind the foul-mouthed sock puppet who cleared the road for Triumph, the Insult  Comic Dog is indeed behind the lens here. And Goldthwait’s prior reputation is by no means a discredit. The film relies heavily on a brilliant sense of black humor, used to riff on pretty much everything that is wrong with modern American vanity and pop culture.

We learn early on that Frank (Joel Murray) is a guy who’s simply fed up with the lack of decency in modern society. His voice first pops up as his his whitetrash neighbors are yelling through the walls about a Michael Jackson story they’re watching on a shitty news channel. “I hate my neighbors. The constant cacophony of stupidity that pours from their apartment is absolutely soul-crushing.”

Thus begins the first in a whirlwind of cynically brilliant monologues from Joel Murray, one of those character actors who you’ll probably recognize (his turn as the barstool mailman Freddie Jackson in Shameless was one of the best parts of that show). Murray’s work is by far the crowning achievement of this movie. He channels both the wry, deadpan self-deprecation that his older brother—yeah, Bill muthafuckin’ Murray—finessed in Rushmore and the moral outrage of Peter Finch in Network.

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“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not keeping up with the Kardashians anymore!”

His disgust with everything from American Idol judges laughing at mentally challenged contestants to gay-bashing right-wingers finally comes to a breaking point when his pathetic life hits rock bottom. First, he’s fired from work on sexual harassment charges for sending flowers to a sick coworker. (And this might sound grandiose, but I’d argue that Goldthwait’s hyperbole here is a vital riff on the personal insensitivity in modern work environments.) Then his schmuck of a doctor tells him he has a brain tumor.

After a twist of fate rules out suicide, Frank goes on a killing spree with a hit list of pretty much any person who is “unkind or indecent.” And you side with the guy because at heart, he’s a teddy bear who cares about the goodness in people, and just happens to wield an AK-47. (Apropos of my note on Eastwood, Frank actually is a gun-savvy war vet, but that doesn’t really matter—it’s a comedy, and he certainly fits the mold of Joe Citizen.)

The only thing that irks me about this movie is that it does have a touch of Diablo Cody-esque, nagging self-awareness. I bring this up because Frank’s annoying sidekick, Roxy, is used more as platform to convey Goldthwait’s strong opinions than as an actual character (see: every character ever written by Diablo Cody). This shtick would get unbearable if it weren’t for the fact that, unlike Hollywood’s favorite no-talent ass-clown of a screenwriter, Goldthwait is not trying to show off how ironically cool his personal opinions are. Instead, he’s using this tool to outline the hideous, vain minutiae that, when compacted, is the face of our warped society.

Diablo Cody

Diablo Cody, aka the worst thing to happen to keyboards since Chuck Palahniuk and Tucker Max.

I did almost punch the screen when Roxy went off on a tangent about why Alice Cooper was the god of everything (like Ellen Page vocally jerking off to Daria Argento via Diablo Cody), but Frank saves the day just in time:

Frank: “Are you ADD, Juno?”

And Roxy redeems herself with this: “That’s who we should kill next. Fucking Diablo Cody. She’s the only stripper who suffers from too much self esteem.”

This tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that’s aware of its self-awareness is the only part of God Bless America that really doesn’t make sense to me. Perhaps Goldthwait is trying to tear down a horrible mechanism with the very same tools it was built with … but that might be reaching. And I really can’t stand Roxy’s character. This said, I’m hard-pressed to think of a better take on the most trashy and heartless elements of our modern society, and aided by Murray’s stellar performance, Goldthwait delivers a film that is as vicariously thrilling and hilarious as it is sociopolitically relevant.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.3  

-Sam Adams