The Living review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
It ain’t the doing it that’s the hard part - it’s the livin’ with it.
They’re the words I’ve heard in at least a dozen southern thrillers of various phrasing and accents. The Living is yet another addition to the genre of middle Americans conflicted with bad blood and deciding whether or not to spill it. It’s that’s familiar blend of crime storytelling which may not shine as brightly as say, No Country for Old Men, but certainly has an engaging premise nonetheless of dark personalities.
The movie presents us with men who want to fix things, but don’t know quite how. Teddy (Fran Kranz) want to repair his marriage to Molly (Jocelin Donahue), but has an uphill battle being a violent alcoholic and wife-beater. Gordon (Kenny Wormald), brother of Molly, wants to save her from the abusive husband who won’t quit, but finds his limited means of help to involve hiring a hitman. Both go about doing right for Molly and each meet with different results. Teddy treads carefully down the road back into her heart while Gordon ends up getting mixed up in something much more deadly and dangerous.
The hitman Gordon hires from out of town is the fearsome and sharp-tongued Howard, brilliantly played by Chris Mulkey. He brings the character alive as a veteran of his profession who takes his job seriously enough and doesn’t play around with his employers or victims. On their trip back into town to carry out the deal, Howard informs Gordon that there is no turning back now and seals that promise by murdering a bitter man at a diner. While Howard is honest about how all this will play out and how he goes about his business, he still displays his psychotic nature by messing with an uneasy Gordon. When eager to get back to town, Howard taunts his client with a gun to the face stating he’d shoot him right now if he really wanted to. But he wouldn’t shoot somebody paying him money, would he? No, of course not. Well, he might. Or maybe not.
Meanwhile, a frustrated Teddy wrestles with his temper issues to foster the gentle husband he can be towards Molly. He lets Molly set the rules about where to eat, what to do and if he can have a drink or not. For opening the movie with Teddy drunk on the floor and Molly with a bruised face, I certainly began to feel for Teddy’s effort and its fruitful payoff. Usually if you see a husband beat his wife in a movie, he is a straight antagonist who cannot be changed. But The Living attempts to ask if a man can reform from stepping into the darkness of booze and violence. He’s not portrayed as a decent man who had a bad day, but someone who needs to come to terms with his problems and be a better man. Molly can see it present and wants that husband to come back to her.
For these two stories that intersect, director Jack Bryan really lays on a thick coating of emotional tugging. There are moments where the movie appears to be trying too hard to garner a response from the aim of each scene. There’s an awkward dinner Teddy and Molly attend with some rather base dialogue to get the point across that Teddy is still not trusted. And much of the exchanges between Gordon and Howard, while incredibly engaging for Mulkey’s performance alone, push the whole Midwest killing philosophy into expected territory. So different are these two plots in both tone and character that they feel like two separate movies with punched up emotional levels.
For having two plots that feel like two different movies, however, The Living manages to make them both entertaining. There are no big surprises in terms of hiring a hitman or rebuilding a marriage, but a handful of twists and some decent acting do make this movie much more palatable. It’s a story I’ve seen before - done much better before - but can’t help myself not to admire its atmosphere and tone. A rather weak script is heroically saved by capable casting. If there is one reason to watch this picture, it’s for Chris Mulkey cavorting as an experienced hitman. Of all the actors who seem to be just going through the expected motions with much restraint, Mulkey really digs his teeth into the role with his sweet southern mouth and dark image of the world he occupies. Every moment with him on screen is brilliant, even when the script is trying to hard to strum your heart.