Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Boy's Best Friend Is His Mother (but that doesn't necessarily go both ways)

One of the biggest compliments I can give a film is to say that it made me want to seek out more by the people it involved. This is how I felt after watching Simon Rumley’s brutal Red White & Blue. I had problems with the film, but was nevertheless fascinated by his storytelling both on the page and the screen. 
Hence, when Netflix flashed the naughty little red warning that Rumley’s previous feature, The Living and the Dead, was leaving Instant Watch, I hopped to it.
Quick Plot: James (28 Days Later and The Fall’s Leo Bill) is a sheltered young man coping with serious schizophrenia. He lives in an old school mansion with his wealthy, but soon-to-be bankrupt father, his bedridden mother, and a few pieces of furniture that barely fill out the floor. It's a sad, small family facing disaster on several fronts and when Pops goes out of town, James seizes the chance to prove his independence by locking out the hired nurse and tending to his ill mother on his own.

Things, as you might expect, do not go well. James doesn't really understand what it means to be a caretaker, as evidenced by his thought process that if taking your pills helps make you feel better, taking them ALL AT ONCE should be the cure. The second act of The Living and the Dead is excruciating in an incredibly raw way, as James, for all his good intentions, puts his poor helpless mother through true hell.

Rumley also explored the relationship between a son and his ailing mother in Red White & Blue, and much like that film, that is the ultimate strength of The Living and the Dead. James isn't a bad guy. "I like people!" he tells his father, who replies with something truly heartbreaking: "Yes son, but they don't like you." Like Marc Senter's Franki, James hurts his mother when trying his best to save her. It's as sad as it is terrifying to watch.
Where I fell a little out of the film (and it should be said, where other reviews seem to think it shines) is during James’ more extreme descent into madness. Rumley pulls out a batch of tricks to try to put us into the mind of a schizophrenic, and while I have no idea how accurately the condition is portrayed here, I personally felt it was a tad too artificially constructed. The sudden mix of aggressive sounds and shaky camera angles came off more as a filmmaking tool than character point of view and it frustratingly took me out of a story that I had previously been fully invested in.

This isn't to shortchange the film, as some of the other posts I've read about it praise Rumley's use of style. If you’ll allow me a Gene Siskel moment, the issue I had was that at a certain point, I just wanted Rumley to follow a different story than what he’d planned. It’s still a unique and deeply effective film well worth a serious watch, particularly for its strong performances and hauntingly unusual imagery.

High Points
The austere mansion goes far in honing the atmosphere of The Living and the Dead, as the family’s surroundings come off as a tragic old school aristocracy slowly eroding with their current state. Wide open rooms are littered with a random artifact and no real personality from the people that actually live there, creating an empty shell of a home for an empty shell of a family

Low Points
As explained earlier, the extreme camera tricks didn’t work for me, perhaps because the more human narrative was just fine on its own
Lessons Learned
Only one, and trust me, that’s enough: the importance of those “I’m Falling And I Can’t Get Up” button things simply cannot be overemphasized

The Living and the Dead just left Netflix Instant Watch, but I’d still recommend a rental if the premise sounds like something you’re interested in. It’s a sad watch, but one made with innovation and, odd to say, heart. Based on this and Red White & Blue, it seems that Simon Rumley is one of the genre’s more interesting new talents, a filmmaker with a strong eye, interesting handle on style, and most importantly, a lot to say and explore. 


  1. Why was your Mill Creek Madness segment an inevitably doomed idea?

  2. I'll get back there! I will! I'm just awful about watching movies I own and will always have when other things come and go on Netflix Instant (like this one, which had a countdown!) or come in the mail. I have 3/4 of a disc watched and noted about, I shall, I vow, get another Mill Creek segment up's say August. Yeahhhhhhhh

  3. Roger O ThornhillJuly 11, 2011 at 11:11 AM

    Call me fucked up, but I'm in the current frame of mind that I want to see a montage of this film with the Guile theme, does that make me a bad person?

  4. No Roger, be secure in yourself. Anything involving street fighter 2 is always morally acceptable. Always.

  5. This sounds great - too bad it's off Netflix. Ebay here I come...

  6. Sometimes movies go away and immediately reappear! And sometimes they move to movie purgatory. Netflix is such a microcosm of humanity...