If any political discussion goes on long enough, the people within it are liable to start asking themselves if the people with whom they are arguing deserve to die for their beliefs. Go ahead and get into a political argument online if you don’t believe me. In today’s supercharged political environment, it doesn’t take much for you to realize where your true political leanings lie, and at what point you’d rather stop talking and start acting. This is the subject of The Last Supper, a terrific, dark and very political indie comedy that totally went under the radar when it came out some 20 years ago, even though it’s got a cast with at least two constellation’s worth of star power. What starts as a revenge fantasy turns into a pointed discussion about the nature of evil, and how easily we can become the monsters we seek to oppose.
The story takes place in Iowa, where five liberal grad students—Jude, Pete, Paulie, Marc and Luke—live together in an old country house. We don’t really know what they’re studying, just that they’re super-entitled liberals in the middle of the Clinton administration, right when Rush Limbaugh was getting rolling but before the Gingrich-era Republican Revolution rewrote the political rules of engagement. The students have a big dinner every Sunday where they discuss all kinds of heady grad student stuff, except one night, Marc’s car breaks down and he’s given a lift home by a trucker named Zachary. The students insist Zachary join them for dinner, whereupon he reveals himself to be a Holocaust denier, a Hitler supporter, a rapist, and probably a murderer. The students swiftly kill Zachary in self-defense, and none of them feels that bad about it. The guy was a Nazi who would have killed them, so what’s the harm? In fact, isn’t the world a little better without him?
So begins a gruesome ritual where the students invite over the most reprehensible right-wingers they can find as part of a sick game: if they can’t convince these guests to recant their positions, they will fatally poison them. One by one, the guests fall—from homophobes, rape apologists and anti-Semites to anti-environmentalists, violent pro-lifers and censorship advocates. As the body count grows, the local law takes notice right around when the students somehow score their biggest guest yet: the world-famous conservative pundit Norman Arbuthnot. But what the students don’t expect is for their normally combative guest to be surprisingly reasonable in private, inadvertently testing the student’s promise that if somebody isn’t as bad as they think, they will let that person go. After you kill a dozen people, you’re no longer in the “letting them live” business.
This is a movie that begins as a liberal revenge fantasy of the darkest kind: Of course it’s wrong to kill some radical hatemonger from the other side of the aisle…but wouldn’t it feel good to do it, just this once? Especially if they really deserved it? It’s a dangerous question we dare not ask ourselves seriously for fear of what the answer might be. But as the movie progresses, we see how fast moral high ground erodes when it’s used for nefarious purposes. There is a handy metaphor throughout the film in which the bodies of slain guests are buried in the garden out back, providing unusually fertile ground for the tomato plot. After a while, the students have way more tomatoes than they know what to do with, and their stomachs ache from all of the acidic food. When you’re more about the process than the result, that kind of thing can happen.
Ultimately, this movie doesn’t take political sides, even if it might look like it, at first. Clearly the movie is more sympathetic to the far left than the far right, but it spares no punches demonizing those who choose to judge people rather than try to understand them. The real enemy here is political extremism, no matter what camp it is in. And for as edgy as all of this felt back in 1995, such dark comedy either will fall flat in today’s politically supercharged environment…or come off as a pretty good idea. But there might be something to remaking this one somehow, because its discussion of what becomes of those who are too quick to mark people as their enemy is something far more relevant today than it was 20 years ago. And back then, it was pretty damned relevant.
With that in mind, the moment of truth here comes at the end, when Norman Arbuthnot begins to understand precisely why he was invited to this creepy old house way out in the sticks. He has already torn down these students and their superiority complex by offering up a salvo of unexpectedly frank and moderate views that suggests that he just wants to make sure that whatever side is the voice of dissent, he wants to be on it. Having completely disarmed the students, Arbuthnot pours them a final toast which he does not take himself, ending things on the most ambiguous of notes. There is the very real possibility that Arbuthnot escaped the house after poisoning the students with their own tainted wine. And yet, we only imagine this because we see a painting of the deed that could only have been done by one of the students themselves. And, as we see the painting, we hear Arbuthnot’s voice-over as he announces his bid for the Presidency, underscoring the reason why the students began their killing spree in the first place. We never really understand what befalls our students in this story, but that isn’t the point. The point is when somebody asks if you would kill Hitler as a child, the best answer is to not answer at all.