The Living is one of those unfortunate films ignorant of any world outside its author’s head. Main characters live without interests, hobbies or incomes. Massacres occur that should be heard for miles, but no sirens follow. An ostensibly destitute character working a rigidly scheduled job drives to Texas from Pennsylvania in the space of a jump cut, merely because the script’s Big Important Message demands he do so. All movies serve a master, and this one bows to its creator’s sermon.
Howard, a burly Southern stereotype, serves as the devil’s hand in this convoluted morality play. Gordon (Kenny Wormald) hires Howard to carry out a hit on his brother-in-law, Teddy (Fran Kranz), after the latter drunkenly abuses his wife Molly (Jocelin Donahue). Gordon’s mother (Joelle Carter) does the Lady Macbeth honors here: Gordon almost lets the transgression pass until she shames him for not punching Teddy’s ticket himself. That shade thrown his way converts his willingness to forgive into a desire for vengeance instantaneously; his entire decision-making process is rendered as comically casual. When he calls Howard, Gordon orders the hit with the same tone you’d order a pizza.
That leaves us with two separate two-handers, with the film slowly transferring its tension from one to the other. The first half inundates us with disconcerting long shots that linger on signifiers of Teddy’s drunken transgression: empty beer bottles, broken glass, a bruised face. But when he and Molly begin to reconcile in earnest, leaving their unprocessed fury behind, that visual sense of dread trades over to the other pair. The second half turns its eye to Gordon and Howard, as the hitman’s proven mean streak—he shoots up diners and doesn’t bother to clean up—provides the film with its primary source of discomforting imagery. This is the simplistic formal philosophy with which director Jack Bryan has outfitted his movie: Wherever anger and violence appears, the aesthetics of anxiety follow along.
Bryan’s film is desperately angling to be described as “a shattering study of the aftereffects of violence.” We move inexorably toward the intersection of the two narratives, knowing full well that characters we’re suppose to sympathize with are going to die once we get there. This begs the crucial question of why we should care for characters who only exist as ethical signifiers, as pins to be bowled down. When the bloody conclusion commences, you have no reasons to feel bad for the bodies left behind: They’re just glorified footnotes in Bryan’s tiresome lecture.