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

the living jocelin donahue

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.

IMDb: 6.3

-Sam Adams

Nursing Your “Serial” Hangover: “True Murder” Podcast and The Secret Life of Phil Champagne

true murder true detective dan zupansky

Despite my best efforts, I can’t always be glued to the idiot box. Life’s duties have a way of throwing one into that dull chasm known as the real world. It’s a place where, unlike on the silver screen, the chances of catching someone jumping onto a moving train while being chased by a psychopath in a human-skin mask as a horde of zombies explodes in the background are, unfortunately, rather slim.

zombie explosion leatherface

A woefully seldom occurrence, in my experience…

That’s why I’ve decided to expand this blog’s scope to include the occasional non-film, media recommendation. Don’t worry, the majority of our content will continue to be Netflix Instant-related. But when I land upon other great pieces of media that are free, streaming and deal in our everpresent theme of crime, thriller and horror storytelling, it’s hard not to bite.

true crime sexy

Who says podcasts can’t be sexy?

Such, is the case with “True Murder,” a Canadian weekly podcast in which Winnipeg-based host Dan Zupansky interviews true-crime authors.

I landed upon Zupansky’s show while driving along a dark stretch of Midwestern highway one bleak, wintry evening. Outside of Janesville, WI—the home of skin-wearing madman Ed Gein—I was still a few hours away from my destination. Then suddenly something horrible happened: I had reached the end of the final episode of the “Serial” podcast.

Ed Gein meme

Sorry, never can resist a good Ed Gein pun…

The horrible thing wasn’t so much that a show I knew would have no resolution ended up lacking resolution. It was that I still had time on the road, and all I could get on my radio were Evangelical preachers yelling about the horrors of not sending them $14.99 and a slew of “new country” stations that would make Townes Van Zandt roll in his grave.

Townes Van Zandt whiskey

Townes wouldn’t have stood for any of this “new country” malarkey

Frantically, I pulled to the side of the road, googled something along the lines of “crime murder podcast” and clicked on the first decent-looking thing that popped up. I was now entering the world of “True Murder.”

The show started with a sinister, low-budget intro name-dropping Ted Bundy and the the BTK Killer as Michael Mann-esque foreboding synth music played in the background. Then a mild-mannered Canadian broadcaster came on and started getting very excited as he politely interviewed an author about a man in Florida who had been abducting people and ritualistically drinking their blood. I was hooked.

I’ve since maken it a point to stream “True Murder” whenever I’m on a lengthy road trip. And one of the more compelling episodes of Zupansky’s show deals with the case of Phil Champagne (helluva name), a middle-aged businessman who was presumed dead in 1982 after drunkenly falling off a boat near northern Washington state’s Lopez Island.

Lopez Island farm

I once went to Lopez Island and took this picture of chickens digging through cow bones at a hippie farm.

Turns out Old Phil actually wasn’t dead, despite freezing waters and an 18-hour coast guard search. So with a marriage falling apart and a $1.5 million life insurance policy that would go on to his brothers, he decided to change his “lackluster existence.” Which basically meant letting no one know he was alive for ten years.

I won’t tell the whole story (that’s what “True Murder” is for), but during his disappearance, he got in with Mexican cartels, used his charm to milk money out of rich housewives, and eventually became a low-level counterfeiter whom the Secret Service targeted as a criminal mastermind—all as man named Harold Stegeman.

Phil Champagne

Phil Champagne: “The last of the great gentleman crooks.”

What makes this episode of “True Murder”—perhaps the most tame (subject-matter-wise) in the series’ arsenal of several hundred broadcasts—is the author Zupansky interviews.

Burl Barer (another helluva name) is a true-crime original, and author of Man Overboard: The Counterfeit Resurrection of Phil Champagne. He’s an immodest personality who refers to himself in the third person as the “legendary Burl Barer,” and “the iron man of true crime.” He’s also a brilliantly eloquent and charismatic storyteller which, ya know, makes for good podcasting.

So what else do you need to know about “True Murder”? First, it’s a taped live show, so it’s nowhere near as carefully constructed or seamless as “Serial.” On the flipside, however, it details hundreds of mind-blowing serial killer and crime stories, and most of them end with a great sense of resolution (something “Serial,” due to the constrictions of its format, can’t really achieve.)

Zupansky also goes out of the way to make sure that while live, each of his shows follows an escalating narrative. So as he interviews one true crime author to the next, “True Murder” essentially becomes an audiobook Cliffs Notes to some of the most fascinating murder cases on record.

Of course there are times when his subjects aren’t the most interesting interviews, or when they fail to show up for the live show altogether. But that’s why I’m recommending you start with one of his better recent episodes. (Here’s a link to the Phil Champagne podcast.)

And there’s something just incredibly charming and hilarious about Zupansky’s Canadian politeness mixed with his zealous fascination toward human dismemberment.

So if you find yourself on a long, winding road one dark night in the midst of some ghastly land, I highly recommend pulling up Zupansky’s archive on blogtalkradio. It’s true-crime storytelling at its most bleak, deliciously campy and endlessly engaging.

-Sam Adams