Fran Kranz plays the most kowtowing domestic abuser of all time in The Living, a barely half-baked drama which serves up a misguided portrayal of an abusive alcoholic that doesn’t align with reality whatsoever. What’s worse is that it’s all in the service of a wan, unpersuasive road movie/revenge tale with underexploited reservoirs of class angst and pain.
The Living unfolds in a dreary small town, where young Molly (Jocelin Donahue) finds herself questioning her relationship after her husband Teddy (Kranz) punches her around one night. Molly’s mother Angela (Joelle Carter) doesn’t like the situation one bit, and is forthright with Teddy in regards to her disgust. But she also reserves a special scorn for her son and Molly’s younger brother, the timid Gordon (Kenny Wormald), who works as a bag boy at the local grocery store. In her mind, no brother would ever let his sister be abused. That’s not what a man does. And just to make sure you understand her viewpoint, Angela even hectors Gordon over getting properly paid for his overtime at work. Because he’s a wimp—get it?
Thusly egged into action, Gordon resolves to visit comeuppance upon his brother-in-law. When a friend tips him off to the existence of Howard (Chris Mulkey), an ex-convict who lives several states away but will for a price eliminate human problems, Gordon sets out to hire Howard to kill Teddy. Almost immediately Gordon regrets his decision, but as he and Howard make their way back home, it appears that his contact will have consequences for the reconciling young couple—as well as for many others.
An issue with The Living isn’t that Chris Mulkey can’t play an oily yet effective sociopath—he can—but the plot machinations of this independent drama are so contrived, and a number of its details so stupid (Howard is the contract killer who honks his car horn in impatience because, you know, there’s some killing to do), that they mark writer-director Jack Bryan’s sophomore effort as a ridiculous misfire.
All of which is a shame, really, because The Living could be something kind of interesting, if only it weren’t trying so hard to emotionally goad its audience. The more intriguing aspects of Bryan’s set-up—of the siren call of abusive relationships, of issues of faith, of the divide in both emotion and action between a boy, essentially, and a man—are cycled through quickly without ever really being substantively explored. Nuance and ambiguity and room to breathe are all sacrificed at the altar of empty incident, like, for example, an air-quote-“shocking” flash of violence at a roadside diner.
More pointedly, though, Bryan’s grasp of domestic violence and the disease of alcoholism is entirely risible. He casts against type—which could be intriguing with Kranz, who brings a sort of doleful, quietly centered charm to his role that could be read as the mannered flip side of any manipulative intent. But then Bryan writes Kranz an extraordinarily stupid and phony character. It’s irrelevant to the narrative that Teddy doesn’t remember beating Molly, and is therefore apologetic—that tracks with the behavior of plenty of drunks—but Bryan constructs Teddy as so immediately remorseful and entirely non-defensive about his drinking as to defy belief. This fact, powered by some howlingly false dialogue (“I think we should all grab dinner or something sometime soon. I’m not gonna hide from this.”), fails the movie immediately on a psychological level.
The film’s score, by Matthew and Neil de Luca, is a high point. But The Living otherwise seems smudged and indistinct: Its locations are bland, communicating nothing extra about its characters, and Aleksander Koustic’s cinematography is color-suppressed, oppressively static in terms of framing. Bryan, too, allows his actors to over-emote and employ other manners of heightened emotional signposting. Mostly, though, The Living is a failure of scripted imagination and execution—by the time everything in Bryan’s movie resolves, one won’t really care who’s living and who isn’t.
Director: Jack Bryan
Writer: Jack Bryan
Starring: Fran Kranz, Jocelin Donahue, Kenny Wormald, Chris Mulkey, Joelle Carter, Erin Cummings
Release Date: April 17, 2015 (New York); April 24, 2015 (Los Angeles)
Brent Simon is a longtime entertainment journalist and sworn enemy to auto-play website videos, as well as a member and former three-term president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.