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An effective modern-day noir set in rural Pennsylvania, Jack Bryan‘s The Living adheres to the familiar template in which a man connecting with the criminal underworld gets in way over his head. The story begins in dramatic fashion, with Teddy (Fran Kranz) waking up one morning surrounded by empty beer bottles after an alcohol-induced blackout — with bloodied hands and his wedding ring missing from his finger. It turns out that he brutally beat his wife, Molly (Jocelin Donahue), the night before, setting into motion a chain of events that inevitably leads to tragic consequences.
The bruised and battered Molly has fled to her mother, Angela’s (Joelle Carter), house, and when Teddy shows up to beg for forgiveness, the irate Angela threatens to shoot him with a shotgun. She also makes Molly’s brother, Gordon (Kenny Wormald), feel ashamed for failing to protect his sister. While confiding his misery at a local bar, a friend tells Gordon that he “knows someone who knows someone” who would be able to fix the problem for good.
“You sure he’s good?” asks Gordon, to which the friend replies: “I’m sure he’s cheap.”
That’s particularly important, since working stiff Gordon has a mere $2,000 to spend on the murderous deed. But that’s enough to hire ex-con hit man Howard (Chris Mulkey), although Gordon has to drive to Mississippi to procure his services in person.
While traveling back to Pennsylvania together, Howard quickly proves his bona fides in a shocking incident that makes Gordon realize that he may indeed have made a deal with the devil.
Meanwhile, the seemingly contrite Teddy works hard to ingratiate himself back into his wife’s good graces. Although initially resistant, she eventually succumbs to his entreaties, tentatively allowing him back into her life in stages.
Bryan’s screenplay handles the domestic-abuse situation with admirable complexity in its depiction of the all-too-common scenario of a battered woman willing to forgive her husband’s violent actions. And he’s created a truly creepy villain in the form of the twisted Howard, who reveals a canny intelligence in addition to his sociopathic tendencies. Superbly played by veteran character actor Mulkey, whose endless film and television credits include a memorable turn in Twin Peaks, his interactions with the milquetoast Gordon provide the film’s most compelling moments.
Equally fine is Wormald, who vividly conveys his character’s feelings of helpless self-loathing.
Moving inexorably toward its violent denouement, this low-budget thriller packs a considerable wallop.
Production: Shooting Films
Cast: Fran Kranz, Jocelin Donahue, Kenny Wormald, Chris Mulkey, Joelle Carter
Director/screenwriter: Jack Bryan
Producers: Jack Bryan, Laura DuBois, John Snyder
Executive producer: Chad Eggers
Director of photography: Aleksandar Kosutic
Production designer: Chelsea Michaels
Editor: Frank Reynolds
Composers: Matthew de Luca, Neil de Luca
Casting: Wayne Morse
Rated R, 89 min.
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