Reappraisal: 'The Last Supper' is an educational, well-intentioned classic
In 1995, when Americans were focused on Michael Jordan returning to the NBA, “The Last Supper” and its message about freedom of speech fell under the radar. Today, with our political spectrum completely divided with political correctness on one side and bigotry on the other, it is worthwhile to rewatch this kitschy horror-comedy film.
“The Last Supper” follows a group of liberal graduate students who get the idea to host dinner parties with the intent of either converting conservative extremists through conversation or murdering them with poisoned wine. Their first murder happens by accident after a heated altercation between the friends and a trucker named Zach (Bill Paxton, “Titanic”). Zach is a patriotic Desert Storm veteran with controversial views on the Holocaust. His experience fighting for his beliefs jumpstarts the group’s desire to take real action as liberals rather than just do small things like recycling. After Zach threatens to assault the students, Marc (Jonathan Penner, “Coneheads”) stabs Zach in the back with a knife, spurring a (ridiculous) plot that raises important questions about oppression of speech.
Emboldened by their newfound power, the friends invite an array of extremists to dinner: A homophobic reverend who promotes isolating gay people on an island, a male chauvinist who doubts the reality of rape, a woman who justifies killing people who enter abortion clinics. However, as their ploy continues, their personal justifications for killing people become weaker (for example, they brutally stab one woman who disliked “Catcher in the Rye”). Soon they lose sight of the original purpose of the dinner parties — to converse with people they disagree with — and even convince one man who advocates for abusing homeless people to stick to his convictions although he expresses a wish to reform. Intoxicated with the power to silence the other side, they are no different from the people they condemn.
Here, “The Last Supper” exhibits its apolitical message. While it may seem like the film selects stereotypes of bigots, it also points out that these people make up a minority of the Republican party and their presence is a result of the noise they make. This aspect of the film actually serves as a suggestion that moderates working together will have more fruitful discussions than extremists yelling at each other. Furthermore, “The Last Supper” equally criticizes the liberal students for their condescension through comments like calling the war a “Republican commercial campaign” to a veteran.
To address discourse between separate ends of the political spectrum, the film brings in the common ethical question: If you met Hitler before he was Hitler, would you kill him? The graduate students jump at the chance to ‘save the world,’ but surprisingly someone they consider ignorant offers a more peaceful solution. Norman Arbuthnot (Ron Perlman, “Hellboy”) is a constant presence throughout the movie, serving as the epitome of all that the students want to destroy. He hosts a conservative television show where he purposefully provokes viewers with bigotry and rhetoric. When he accepts the group’s dinner invitation, however, he surprises them with his insight into the political dynamics of the country and his advocation for discourse across the divide. Rather than kill the hypothetical Hitler, he declares he would engage in a conversation to sway Hitler’s mind. Norman’s rational argument challenges the prejudices these students hold towards the opposing party enough to make them not poison him.
So why is this film so important to rewatch over two decades later? We have arrived at a point in our country’s politics where communication across party lines at the leadership level down to normal citizens has become nearly impossible without offending or censoring someone. While “The Last Supper” certainly should not be viewed for its artistic quality, it does provide a thought-provoking take on how both sides are guilty of restricting freedom of speech. Moreover, the film succeeds at questioning not only conservatives for hate speech, but also liberals for placing themselves on a moral pedestal because their prejudices are not as blatantly out of line. “The Last Supper” drills in, admittedly a bit heavy-handedly, on the fact that silencing each other is not the solution. Instead, we must be willing to have uncomfortable conversations and remain respectful of one another without eliminating the voices that disagree with us.