The Last Supper is a 1990s black comedy where a group of ultra-liberal post-graduate students invite right-wingers over for debate, and kill them if they cannot change their minds. In this episode I analyse this film’s political satire, the occult symbolism littered throughout the movie, and how the logical result of identity politics is the eradication of empathy.
The Last Supper in a 1995 black comedy. It didn’t cost much money or make much money and received mixed reviews – a little more positive from critics than from the general public, it seems. I think it’s an excellent little film, driven by a very entertaining and provocative script and some solid performances. It also stars Ron Perlman and Bill Paxton, two of my favourite actors.
What led me to The Last Supper was a later film written and directed by Dan Rosen, who wrote The Last Supper. The later movie is called Dead Man’s Curve, and explores a plot by college students to make one of their roommates kill himself after they read about how the suicide of a roommate guarantees you straight As. That is also a dark, satirical, comparatively low budget film, so I looked up what else Rosen did.
In brief, The Last Supper is about a bunch of liberal post-graduate students who invite people over for dinner and discussion. One night they encounter Zach (Bill Paxton), a military veteran who gives one of the housemates – Pete – a lift home after his car breaks down. They invite Zach in for dinner and he spouts off a bunch of Nazi apologist nonsense and they end up killing him.
As a result they form a kind of murder cult where they agree that they will invite in guests with extreme right wing views, and if they can’t change their minds they will kill them with poisoned wine. They murder nearly a dozen people, while the relationships in the house fall apart and the police start to suspect them. I won’t spoil exactly how it ends, but I will be spoiling a lot of the plot from here on.
In the background of this story are two key plot points – 1) a missing girl who is presumed kidnapped and murdered. This mystery is never solved, though it is heavily implied that Zach, the first murder victim, is himself a rapist and a possible murderer who is responsible for the girl’s disappearance. And 2) The character of Norman Arbuthnot, played by Ron Perlman, a right wing talking head based loosely on Rush Limbaugh, but these days has echoes of the likes of Jordan Peterson and Milo Yiannopoulos.
In the first full scene of the film four of the housemates are sitting around eating their hummus and chopped carrots and watching Arbuthnot on the TV. He says a bunch of inflammatory but meaningless stuff, they get pissed off, and one of them switches it off. This is a great set up for two of the major themes in The Last Supper – the problems of echo chambers, and liberal hypocrisy.
The young woman, Paulie, turns off the TV saying it’s hers, so it is her decision. Despite her hyper-liberal view of the world she’s not beyond the childish temptations of ‘my property, my rules’. The idea that the TV belongs to her so someone else can’t watch something on it that she disagrees with is petty and childish, which is a nice in-road to the notion that underneath their liberal platitudes lies a controlling, totalitarian mindset.
This becomes clear in the first dinner and murder scene, when Pete turns up in a thunderstorm with Zach, who has rescued him from the rain. They invite Zach in for dinner, but when they find out he’s basically a neo-Nazi, they don’t argue with his views, they just mock and insult him and his views. He denies the holocaust because apparently there’s ‘no real evidence’ for it, which objectively speaking is a tricky one, because as with so much that happened in WW2 there isn’t a lot of empirical evidence left. But the liberals don’t say this, or say that it’s like denying slavery because we can’t find that many 300 year old manacles and chains, or denying the Irish famine because there aren’t enough fossilised potato husks.
After all, with so much of history we go on the basis of diaries, letters, photographs and other partial, first-hand evidence like eye-witnesses. None of this is perfect, but exploiting the limitations of historical evidence to deny people’s suffering when – whatever the exact details – they definitely suffered on an industrial scale, is dishonest and vile. But instead of any of that, we get this:
After Zach is killed they talk about going to the police, about the rights and wrongs of what they’ve done. The leader of the house, Luke, the erudite black guy doing a PhD in political science who reminds me of Obama, argues that they’ve done the right thing. He starts a recurring conversation about whether it would be right to kill Hitler in 1909 and prevent all those deaths.
Luke coaxes the others into forming a kind of secret society where they have guests over and argue with them about politics and morality and, if they fail to change the person’s mind they will kill them. Luke poisons the dessert wine with arsenic, and they bring over a reverend, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a young woman who is suing her school because of their mandatory sex education policies, another who believes in bombing abortion clinics. They end up killing all of them and burying them in the back garden.
Before we move onto the political dimensions of all this, I do want to highlight how all kinds of mystery school ideas find their way into the script. First, the idea that they are the initiated, the politically and morally correct ones and therefore they have rights that ordinary people don’t have. Those of you who’ve seen the film Rope and know the backstory with Nietzsche’s philosophy will have some idea what I’m talking about here. More on that in a forthcoming episode.
Also, that they are a cult or secret society with a predetermined membership, and that they all have to agree that someone has it coming to them before they murder the dinner guest. While Luke is effectively the leader and founder of the cult, there is no hierarchy, there is only the initiated five housemates and the uninitiated.
Then there is the ritual nature of what they do. The guest comes in and sits down at the table and they ask the guest if they want to say grace (something Zach insists on in the first dinner-murder scene). This is a kind of code and test, to see how extreme their views are, before they begin the discussion and debate. The notion that the guest and victim is a willing fool, taking part in a sacrifice ceremony, is laid on pretty obviously throughout these scenes. They are given a choice, of sorts, and if they renounce their right-wing asshole beliefs they can be spared, but otherwise it’s the poison wine and the vegetable garden for them.
This leads to one very funny moment when one of their guests appears to be persuaded by their arguments, just as he’s about the drink the poison-laced wine.
You say tomato, I say deep symbolism
Perhaps the most prominent and recurring thematic symbolism in the film is tomatoes. Bear with me now, because if you’ve seen The Last Supper then this will make sense but if you haven’t then maybe it won’t. When they bury the bodies in the vegetable garden they, mostly Luke, uses them as fertiliser to grow tomato plants. Over time, as the garden becomes full of bodies, it also becomes full of tomato plants.
About half way through the film there’s a montage where we see the household starting to break apart – one of the characters, played by Cameron Diaz, is shown planting flowers on some of the graves while crying. The other young woman, who owns the TV, is obviously having problems with her boyfriend, the Jewish painter called Marc who stabbed Zach. We also see how the tomatoes are taking over the house – there are baskets and tubs of them everywhere, loads of jars of tomato puree and preserves.
They also eat the tomatoes a lot, notably in the dinner-murder scenes they’re often having some kind of pasta with tomato sauce type of dish. So the tomatoes are partly a symbol of the life-death cycle – they are grown on the decomposing bodies of the victims, and used to nourish both the secret society members and their guests and future victims.
Being bright red, obviously they also represent the murders taking place, which are never gory. Indeed, the tomatoes take the place of gore and blood in the film. There’s even a great bit in the montage where Luke is smashing up some of the tomatoes with a bat, sending bright red splatterings all over the garden that look like bloody flesh.
The tomato situation gets so out of hand that they serve as constant reminders to the housemates of what they’ve done – an unavoidable consequence of their actions. During the montage Marc, the first murderer, tells Cameron Diaz that he’s had a sick stomach for weeks and she replies ‘probably all these tomatoes’. Obviously she means ‘probably stress brought on by being a member of a serial-killing cult’.
Related to this is the fact that at dinner they always drink red wine, and it’s the white dessert wine which has the poison. So the red wine presumably represents blood, like in the Catholic ritual traditions, and the tomatoes represent the body? The tomatoes are life out of death, and in some small way literally the bodies of their victims reborn as food. They consume both the body and the blood, while their victims consume both and are then poisoned with the white wine.
This is all very interesting, of course, but what was the writer getting at? I’m not sure if anyone ever asked him but along with the unsolved mystery of the missing girl I think he is definitely incorporating – pun intended – a lot of these ideas in a deliberate way. The unresolved nature of the mystery sets up the entire film – the opening shot is of a missing persons poster on a tree, alongside a crowing raven in a thunderstorm. These are harbingers of the doom to come, and the unsolvable mysteries both of nature and of humanity.
Just as the central characters form what’s in effect a secret society with initiation rites and ritualistic sacrifices, we are initiated into their secret society by watching the film. I think this is both a dramatic exploration of the bizarre rationales people give for doing evil things, and also an attempt to make people reflect on their own prejudices and excuses for doing the wrong thing.
Unlike Wild Things, which is a somewhat similar film from a few years later that I analysed some episodes ago, I don’t think the aim here is dramatic catharsis. I don’t think that Rosen is trying to cleanse the audience, the general public, of the sins of prejudice and hypocrisy. I think he’s trying to initiate those of us watching into a better understanding of how all political views can become totalitarian, and of the benefits of embracing mystery and of not knowing the truth. Without totally giving away the ending, that is the moral of the story for the housemates, that their certainty in their own righteousness is a tragic flaw with dangerous implications and consequences.
The Politics of The Last Supper
Of course, one of the elements I most enjoy about this film is how it skewers both liberals and conservatives without encouraging allegiance to either side of the usual binary political discussion in America. The conservative guest-victims are a pretty terrible bunch, including the reverend who thinks AIDS is the cure for homosexuality, the women who thinks killing doctors who carry out abortions is justified and the guy who argues that if a woman agrees to a date she’s also agreeing to have sex and therefore rape hardly ever happens.
None of these people deserve to die, with the possible exception of Zach, who is apparently a rapist, child molestor and violent criminal, and he does threaten Marc with a knife to his throat and break Pete’s arm. There is an element of ambiguity about Zach, but the rest are shown to have stupid and vicious political views but they are never threatening or violent.
Meanwhile, the liberals are total hypocrites, using other people’s hatred as a justification for hating and murdering them. Pete, who argues that people’s shouldn’t be able to carry big knives, owns a shotgun which he uses for clay pigeon shooting, and at one point to shoot and kill a live bird. He leaves this shotgun in his car the night Zach picks him up and takes him home, leading the police to catch up with him and start to unravel what’s going on. This symbol of his double standards is also the cause of his undoing.
At one point the sheriff sneaks into the back garden and steals and eats one of the tomatoes. Luke catches her and murders her, and though the disappearance of the sheriff gets into the papers, that crime is never solved. There’s a lot of unsolved mysteries in this film that we only know the truth about because we’re initiated into the story and can see into the secret society, again emphasising the benefits of embracing the unknown rather than prejudice.
Indeed, Luke (played by Courtney B Vance, who you will remember if you’ve seen anything he’s been in because he’s great) is perhaps the most fascinating of all. He isn’t really a liberal, or at least not a politically correct one – he insults Pete as a ‘rich white boy’ and refers to one of their murder victims as ‘the fag-basher’. Indeed, he is weirdly cold through most of the film, suggesting he is a sociopath who is leading the rest of the housemates into the murder cult. By the end he does realise what he has done and shows guilt and remorse, so presumably the writer is implying that the possibility of sociopathic behaviour is in many of us, even though the vast majority of us are not sociopaths.
To be honest, portraying an educated liberal black man as a sociopath in current pop culture would probably be a no-no, or at least would face some objections from reviewers and audiences. Luke is a rare, unusual character who is quite chilling at times, very funny at other moments and clearly intelligent and charismatic. We’re definitely supposed to like him as a person and to see how he helps induce the others into forming the murder cult. But we’re also supposed to see him as a hypocrite and a murderer, like in Dead Man’s Curve the characterisation is complex and clever. Again, this leaves us asking questions about what we’re supposed to make of all this, which I’m sure was Rosen’s main aim for the film (aside from making a weird black comedy). By confronting us with the complexities of human nature he provokes a lot of questions that people should think about.
Towards the end of the film – and somewhat predictably – Luke and Pete accidentally bump into Norman Arbuthnot in the airport. Luke sees Arbuthnot as the king of the right-wing crowd he despises, so they invite Norman to dinner and fully intend to kill him. But then, something happens.
It turns out that Arbuthnot is playing a role in his TV appearances, deliberately stirring the pot with phoney arguments and that, deep down, he’s quite a reasonable and open-minded guy. Ron Perlman plays this to perfection – apparently he really pushed to get the role and threatened to fall out with the director if he didn’t get it. He’s naturally a funny guy with a likeable face so it’s easy to forgive him, and what he’s saying is largely true – he isn’t responsible for everything some idiot does in response to his words, the political power mostly resides in the moderates and not the extremists, it’s mostly naïve overreactionaries who have a problem with him.
However, and this isn’t really a criticism of the failure of this film to foresee what would happen 20 years later, there is something missing from this. Perhaps my biggest problem with our current identity politics phase of political-media culture is how it diminishes empathy. Identity politics is born out of the isolationist idea that ‘you don’t know what it’s like to be such-and-such and therefore your opinions are irrelevant’. The number of times I’ve been told that I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman and therefore I have no idea about it would make me a rich man if I started taxing people for saying that. And to be clear – it isn’t just women who’ve said this to me, not by a long way.
Of course, it’s true, I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. But that doesn’t mean I’m incapable of empathy or imagination, or of listening to women talk about their struggles and concerns. But by the same token none of the women who’ve said that to me know what it is like to be a man, but somehow when I say that in response it has little impact, as though empathy and sympathy are only things to be received, never offered or given.
Ditto age – I’ve had a lot of older people patronise me and especially millenials for ‘lacking life experience’. Well, all experience is life experience. Sure, kids who have only ever been to school and then university aren’t necessarily going to know much about the world, but I’ve met plenty of people who’ve worked in the so-called real world their entire life and seem to have no insight into the human condition whatsoever.
Indeed, one can follow this logic to a pretty miserable end, where we’re all just isolated, atomised individuals and none of us can know what it is like to be anyone else. My point being that all demographic categories – wealth, age, sexuality, gender, race, religion – are divisive, and identity politics encourages everyone to mark out their own piece of territory and to only extend empathy to those within it. The logical conclusion of this is the eradication of empathy, not the extension and encouragement of it.
The lack of any attempt to understand people who are coming from a different place is damaging to the political consensus, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. If we actually face substantial threats to our societies – which is not a debate I’m entering into right now – then political consensus is necessary to band together and do something about those threats. But I am perhaps more worried by the lack of societal consensus, not because I think everyone should believe the same things, but because it has resulted not from a rise in pluralist thinking but from a rise in protectionist, isolationist thinking. As our societies have become more atomised, we’ve become ever more concerned about protecting what we have for ourselves – economically, politically, culturally – and of the necessity of competing with others to do that. The notion of a truly pluralist society – where most people just get on with their lives without obsessing over what other people think and say and do – seems as far away as ever.