Rhona, a yoga instructor committed to a vegan lifestyle, must entertain Leo, her red meat-loving, blue collar father-in-law, as she waits for her husband to join them for dinner. When Leo attempts to apologize for a past insult, he instead opens up a debate that challenges her belief system. Their conversation quickly escalates into a heated argument that scrutinizes animal cruelty, climate change, health, morality, and spirituality. Endorsed by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and reminiscent of the classic film My Dinner With Andre, Living Things presents a compelling dialogue about humanity and the benefits of a healthier, environmentally-conscious lifestyle. Written by
Cinema Libre Studio
An exhausting experience . . . that's a good thing.
Eric Shapiro's Living Things is an exhausting experience, and that's a good thing. There are no car chases, no gun battles, no cacophony of sound design. Here is a movie that is constructed almost entirely out of words. It contains only two actors, seated at a dinner table debating each other for just over an hour. They are at opposite ends of the political and social spectrum and find themselves in a heated ethical debate that rages on for 75 minutes.
The setting is a small apartment at sundown. A young woman is busy preparing dinner for her husband and father-in-law who haven't arrived yet. She is Rhona (Rhoda Jordan) a 29 year-old, pretty, well-read young woman who prides herself on being a vegan, and a champion of left-wing causes. Eventually, one of her guests arrives. He is Leo (Ben Siegler), her father-in-law, a 62 year-old war veteran who is recently a widower. He is a hard-nosed conservative and couldn't be more Rhona's opposite.
Leo arrives, but the husband calls to say he'll be late. It becomes clear right away that Rhona is uncomfortable around Leo. That's understandable because Leo doesn't seem to have much practice at holding his tongue. Early on, their body language tells us that there is some stickiness in their past relationship that Rhona doesn't want to discuss. Leo, however, is determined to apologize for his past behavior anyway. He has a studied way of recklessly swerving the conversation into uncomfortable territory. He is confrontational and quickly finds that Rhona is a worthy opponent.
Eventually, their conversation moves from the living room couch to the dinner table where Leo's distaste for Rhona's vegan dinner is more than a little obvious. She offers to order Chinese take-out. He refuses. This sparks a debate. Leo becomes determine to discuss her vegan diet and the two find themselves arguing the issue of eating meat versus eating plants. He thinks that killing animals is a nasty but important part of our world. Rhona thinks its murder, plain and simple because she can't imagine eating something that was dragged to its death. Leo makes the point that plants themselves have feelings. Rhona argues that plants don't have the consciousness of animals and therefore eating them is not murder.
What rolls from there is one of the most fascinating, uninhibited debates that you've ever seen. One in which words fly like bullets and each combatant is ready with an intellectual response. Debate becomes argument. Arguments turn to a confessional and the two find themselves laying all their ill feelings for each other on the table. This amid heated discussions about animal cruelty, climate change, health, morality, and spirituality. Rhona is an idealist whose point of view comes from books and education. Leo is more practical, he's a man who has seen the real world on the battlefield and off.
What makes Living Things special is that neither Rhona nor Leo is set up as the villain. They both have an intelligent point of view, and both make valid points. Director Eric Shapiro paces their conversation with the fury of a car chase. It's fascinating to listen to these two people. It is also a bit uncomfortable, and by that I mean challenging. So much dialogue in the movie today is flat, boilerplate dialogue that only serves to move plot along. What is wonderful about Living Things is that the movie is all dialogue. The way it flows, it never seems to have been written, but seems to be expressed on the spot.
If there is a weakness in the film it comes at the very end. There is a development in the midst of the debate (which I won't spoil) that is, perhaps, a bit much in terms of credibility. But it's hard to dismiss the entire film for that. This is, for the most part, a fascinating film that proves that words can be as powerful as bullets, and hit just as hard.
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