Monday 16 July 2012

Review: Killer Joe

Year: 2011 (U.K Release 2012)
Director: William Friedkin
Screenplay: Tracy Letts
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church, Juno Temple, Matthew McConaughey

Synopsis is here

This twisted southern gothic noir, feels like Friedkin and writer Tracey Letts tore chunks from. Double Indemnity (1944) and flung them in boiling hot trans fats. It’s a devilishly amoral tale which is not for audiences who desire a hero to root for.

Considering the landscape of American cinema has mostly been filled adaptations of populist books and comic books, it does surprise when something like this comes along these days. Letts appears to be no Syd Field convert and Friedkin, clearly doesn't care that it's 2012, making a film that has the feel of a director who made films in the 70s. After so many origin stories of ever good superheroes, this upsets the balance like a stone in the foot. At first, it is hard to get into the rhythms. The jump cuts, the offbeat marks of the actors; it's all a little disorientating at first.

But then what do you expect when we're a film that is so combative from the off? Beginning in a thunderous storm we are introduced to the films catalyst, Chris (Hirsch), by a barking dog. We've seen movies like this, when the dog barks, there's trouble afoot. The animals always seem to read the situation best. Having such an aggressive animal intro this character, not only signals that there's trouble a comin' but also supplies an echo back to the fighting dogs from Friedkin’s seminal horror film The Exorcist (1973). Interestingly enough, both The Exorcist and Killer Joe have desperate families looking to an enigmatic stranger to expel evil. The difference here is that everyone in Killer Joe has morals of the Edinburgh toilet in Trainspotting (1996).

The opening gambit is one used down many a noir, Chris has debts and believes that killing his abhorrent (yet mostly unseen) mother for her insurance payout is the right way to go. He manages to rope his dopey father (Church) in to help with proceedings, for no real reason other than they are no longer a couple. They hire Joe Cooper; a detective who’s a hitman on the side, to get the deed done. And the payment? $25,000 when the check clears with Chris' "uncomplicated" sister as a retainer. The moment we meet Dottie (Temple), dressed in virginal white, we can see where things are heading.

Killer Joe plays in the same realm as Herzog's Bad Lieutenant (2009). A sun baked fever dream of dirty dealings and dubious morals. Innocence is a word in the dictionary, if your indebted to loan sharks, you better hope the cops don't like the creditors better. Friedkin has captured a shit of the shoe pocket of existence that lends itself to the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or even Rob Zombies Halloween (2007). These characters glare at each other with wide eyes and contempt, scrabbling over each other in order to survive. Friedkin captures this energy with the same zeal he had with his earlier films. Here however, he knows the distance we need to keep from these people. He finds the absurd humour that languishes between the lines. At one point, Chris' creditors catch up with him and they enjoy a conversation that one would hold with close friends before the inevitable beat down. The cinematography by Caleb Deschanel captures the contempt and aggression that simmer between the characters. The gaudy blue beams of a strip club, desolate roadside crosses, dry heat sizzle of the day and the thunderstorm nights combine and paint a picture of a town that Texas forgot.

Within all this is an actor who is truly in his element. Matthew McConaughey is truly at his best with this performance. The man appears to be having a purple patch (See The Lincoln Laywer) and all credit is due to him. Joe Cooper is a character with a searing intensity I would never have expected from a leading man who has spent much of the last decade leaning on rom-com posters. Here is a chilling role that taps into the same darkness that was seen in Frailty (2002). Unpredictability looms over every scene he features. We dread every slow step he takes. Meanwhile, I've nearly made up my mind on how I feel about Hirsch as one again I've seen him in a movie in which he appears out of step with everybody else. His exchanges feel stilted (both him and the limited locations remind us that the material was originally a play) but he doesn't fully frustrate. Church and Gershon on the ther hand, are perfect. While Temple is the film’s ying to Joe’s yang, playing the role with enough sympathy for us to feel the risk. "Your eyes hurt" she exclaims to Joe, and we can see why. She is a white trash angel. One who is completely untouched. Joe's seedy, unflinching gaze does nothing but disturb. Is he grooming her to harm her, or is he really infatuated? The balance is struck so fine, it's impossible to detect.

What is detectable is some of the gender politics at play. The often mention fried chicken sequence is one of humiliation that may cause many to bulk. While Joe’s interactions with Dottie are very uncomfortable. A million readers may be tantalised by one Christian Grey but I doubt they'll look at the domination in Killer Joe with the same doe eyes.

Friedkin states that he films are about the thin line between good and evil. It's the same here, although the lines are much more blurred. Much like the little seen Bug (2006), the uneasy energy crackles in the atmosphere. The surroundings are claustrophobic and the people are gasping for air. Despite being so far away and so long ago, Friedkin's direction once again places us in that small bedroom in Washington. As a film maker, one can say he's never really left. I will say that there is something in Tracey Letts work that once again brings out the nasty in Friedkin. The world here feels like an extension of the fishbowl found in Bug. Characters seem to share the same psychosis, willing to fall for so much to keep their fever dreams alive. The films ending is aburpt and will frustrate, but consider it the end of one story and the beginning of another.
I do however, doubt you'll mind too much. Considering how much this film will you drag around in the sand anyway, you may be happy just to get the grit out of our eye.