British indie flick The Living and the Dead, a multiple award winner at Austin’s Fantastic Fest a couple years back, is certainly out of step with much of the cinematic output of its national brethren, but never less than rather mesmerizingly so. An unnervingly, chilly blend of madness and pathos, the film is a solid, horrifically engrossing portrait of the slow slide into madness, and the ripple effect that psychological disorders can have on families.
Shot in 2006, The Living and the Dead captures family dysfunction at its most shocking and grotesque. With bankruptcy looming, financially desperate Donald Brocklebank (Roger Lloyd Pack) must leave his bedridden wife Nancy (Kate Fahy) alone with their son James (Leo Bill), a mentally impaired, schizophrenic man-child. Abandoning his medication, James spirals downward into a horrific fit of dementia, locking out both his father and a visiting nurse from their sprawling, palatial estate, and playing solo caretaker to his mother, insisting that “the more [pills] you take, the better you get.” As his ability to distinguish reality from morbid fantasy starts to first fray and then outright rot, James plunges into a mental labyrinth so violent and deranged that it holds dire consequences for everyone involved.
Written and directed by Simon Rumley (Club Le Monde, The Truth Game), and powered by a meticulously constructed sense of atmospheric dread, The Living and the Dead recalls claustrophobic thrillers like William Friedkin’s Bug, and certainly Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery, but also something like Brad Anderson’s Session 9. Shot over the course of 18 days at the Savernam Estate’s cavernous Tottenhouse House in the English countryside — a location that effectively doubles as an extra character in the otherwise spare, intimate psychological drama — the movie unfolds in mostly long-take wide shots, though Rumley also isn’t afraid to stage a canted angle for art’s sake. Rumley has described the roots of the inspiration for the film as coming from his mother’s treatment for terminal cancer, and watching the manner in which medications and the lack of greater social interaction destroyed her connection with the world at large. That mangy sense of pained isolation comes through here. Bill looks sort of like a cousin of Ewan Bremmer, and his twitchy performance creates genuine discomfort — which is of course the entire point.
Housed in a clear, regular Amray case with a paper insert touting a series of TLA releases, The Living and the Dead is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a 5.1 Dolby digital audio track. Along with the movie’s original theatrical trailer and a gallery of four other previews for other TLA pictures, supplemental extras consist of a one-minute photo montage, 13 minutes of deleted scenes and Laughter, a 13-minute short film from earlier Rumley’s career, shot in grainy black-and-white. There is also a very nicely done 26-minute making-of featurette, which includes loads of on-set footage and interview material with Rumley, who talks a lot about the difficulties in raising financing for the movie, his fourth feature, as well as its place alongside his other work. To purchase the movie via Amazon, click here. B+ (Movie) B+ (Disc)