“You insult me again, and I’ll cut your face off and wear it over my own.”
Boasting what is undoubtedly Matthew McConaughey’s all-time greatest performance, Killer Joe is not for the faint-hearted. You will certainly never look at fried chicken the same way again. Brooding and atmospheric, dark and unremittingly intense, it has some truly shocking moments of violence and sadism, and the kind of twisted trailer-trash plot that the Coen Brothers would be proud of.
77-year-old director William Friedkin makes something of a comeback with this punishingly brutal drama – the man who will probably always be best remembered for The French Connection and The Exorcist, although he’s done a few more gems like the underrated To Live and Die in LA and the tense Wages of Fear remake, Sorcerer. Unfortunately the years haven’t been kind to Friedkin, and it’s been over a quarter of a Century since he did anything even approaching his greatness of old.
Premiered at the Venice Film Festival, does Killer Joe change that?
Small-time Texas drug dealer Chris is in trouble. He owes a lot of money to the wrong people, and if they don’t get it back – and soon – he’s a dead man. Hearing about his mother’s sizeable life insurance policy, he makes a plan with his dad and step-mom to kill her and use the money to solve all of his financial problems. To that end he decides to hire Killer Joe, a local cop who moonlights as a contract killer. Unfortunately Joe demands payment up-front and, with Chris planning on paying him out of the insurance money, a new arrangement has to be found – one that will see Joe insinuate himself into the lives of Chris and his family far more than they could have ever anticipated, with dark and violent consequences.
Certainly William Friedkin’s last few films have been far more hit than miss, with his last mainstream film – The Hunted, with Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro – feeling as if it was an unfinished, incomplete tale that simply did not deliver given both the kind of talent and the intriguing premise involved. And that was a decade ago. Even though almost all of his films have sparks of that classic genius, his last dozen have arguably had more wrong with them than right, and unfortunately Killer Joe, whilst a considerable step up, still has more than its fair share of flaws.
Reuniting with screenwriter Tracy Letts after their collaboration on his last feature, 2006’s indie psychodrama, Bug, a lot has changed in the intervening 6 years, and, in keeping up with the times, Friedkin has chosen to shoot Killer Joe in HD – his first film not shot on film. It’s not his first experience with the new format, however, having played around with it whilst filming a couple of episodes of CSI (reuniting him with To Live and Die in LA star William Petersen), but he is still clearly getting used to it, and Killer Joe does not feel like the work of the man behind The Exorcist and The French Connection.
Initially it even looks like an episode of CSI: polished and perfect, with very little texture to it, that all-important filmic grain conspicuously absent. Although you do get used to the style, Friedkin’s preferred 1.85:1 framing only further emphasises the small-screen feel to the piece, however it soon becomes clear that this is almost appropriate given the kind of material we’re dealing with: a small-scale story in a narrow-minded, incestuous backwards nowheresville. None of this is really an issue, and the HD cinematography, whilst being far from panoramic, does have the advantage of promoting Friedkin’s attention to both deep colours and clammy, sweaty faces, furthering the intensity of the drama.
The story simmers with that same underlying psychosis which was prevalent in Bug; Letts obviously has a thing for dark and twisted personalities, although here his disdain for trailer trash is evident in every scene and there likely won’t be a single character that you find tolerable, let alone likeable. Still, they are undoubtedly compelling – you’re simply desperate to see what happens to this group of nasty individuals. It’s a melting-pot of toxic, volatile ingredients and you know that, sooner or later, it’s going to explode.
For about half of the narrative the thumb-screws are slowly tightened and the tension builds until it is almost unbearable. Then something strange happens: we lose time. Perhaps a week has passed; perhaps a day – who knows? – but, between scenes, some considerable time has unexpectedly passed. Then the indebted low-life drug dealer, Chris, gets savagely beaten, further driving him to spur on the murder of his mother. And – between scenes – time suddenly passes again, the film literally going from one scene where he’s desperate to know when the act will be committed, to the next scene (with the same two characters), where his bruises are healing and he’s now desperate to stop the events that he has set into motion.
It’s difficult to describe exactly what is going on without giving away too many plot details, but basically the narrative suddenly becomes disjointed, as if the original story took place over a number of weeks rather than days, and Friedkin just didn’t know how quite to convey the passage of time. Unfortunately, rather than adding to the disconcerting nature of the piece, it merely comes across as being frustrating and even a little cheap, as if it has rush-edited by a director and editor who were both working within the constraints of a Studio-imposed runtime.
Of course, as viewers would eventually discover, the reality was that this wasn’t the kind of film where there were any constraints present at all, so there really was no excuse for this poor editing style. If all Friedkin had to his name were films like The Exorcist and The French Connection, I would have been more surprised, but his last few films have all hinted at this kind of unfinished ‘style’, and it has never worked (as aforementioned, The Hunted felt thoroughly like a film which simply had some key scenes – character and plot development – missing). Here whole days go past, and the viewer is forced to play catch-up between scenes in a way that does not feel natural at all, and oftentimes threatens to take you right out of the movie.
The matter only compounds itself towards the end of the movie, where even single complete scenes of dialogue seem to have been chopped and stuck together, with one person in the conversation asking a question, then the other saying something completely at odds with it, with a clear break in-between which makes you feel like a couple of lines have been randomly cut out. Which they clearly have. Again, in the hands of another director – perhaps Killing Them Softly’s Andrew Dominik – this technique may have been better used to further the distorted reality of the piece, but instead here it’s just an effective tool at alienating the audience. (With Friedkin set to go back to his Exorcist roots next, reteaming with Exorcist author William Peter Blatty for what the author regards as an even better horror than the Exorcist, one can only hope that Friedkin’s gotten whatever he needed to out of his system, and can give us a more classic piece of filmmaking for an adaptation of this book, Dimiter.)
Then, of course, there is that dreaded NC-17 rating: the very reason why we can tell that Friedkin clearly wasn’t hindered by an imposed shorter runtime. Reportedly Friedkin really fought with the Studios over this, and he won. Sort of. Oddly comparing the censoring of his work to the Vietnam War – “Cutting it would have been the equivalent of what members of the United States government and military leaders said about the Vietnam War. They said, ‘We have to destroy Vietnam in order to save it’ and that’s what I would have done to Killer Joe. To get an R rating, I would have had to destroy it in order to save it and I wasn't interested in doing that.” – Friedkin would see his film garner a limited release, uncut (the UK 18-rated version appears to be uncut too) before being forcibly cut to produce an alternative R-rated version which was also released.
Quite honestly I think Friedkin wanted the NC-17 rating. Gratuitous nudity and sadistic violence permeate the feature – from its very opening full-frontal shot of the lower half of a naked woman right through to the bludgeoning skull-bashing of the final act – and the psychological oppression simply never lets up, as if you’re trapped in hell right alongside all these lost souls. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before in R-rated films, though. Well, almost nothing. The MPAA originally stated that it was rated NC-17 “for graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality”, but it’s really only the “and a scene of brutality bit” that made the difference to the MPAA. And whilst Friedkin might cry about it being “just like ‘Nam”, the censoring – or at least abbreviating – of this scene would likely not have made a huge amount of difference to the impact of the film as a whole.
There are plenty of movies which need that NC-17 rating to stay true to themselves. There are plenty of others which needlessly earned the rating from a capricious MPAA. Amidst the former we have the likes of Darren “The Wrestler / Black Swan” Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (an unflinchingly brutal assault on your sense which will make you feel dirty and degraded) and Abel “King of New York” Ferrara’s original – and superior – Bad Lieutenant (not the enjoyable but far-from-controversial remake); amidst the latter we have the likes of Cianfrancse’s Blue Valentine (which successfully appealed) and Paul “Robocop / Basic Instinct” Verhoeven’s quintessential so-bad-its-good flick Showgirls, which apparently just had too damn much sex for the American board to handle. There are even a few films which probably should have been given an NC-17 rating but somehow, inexplicably, didn’t – like Michael Winterbottom’s unpleasantly, painfully unforgettable The Killer Inside Me – as well as a few that didn’t even attempt to get rated, as the outcome was inevitable (Noe’s powerfully haunting Irreversible). Beyond these categories, however, we do also get the occasional movie which goes for shock value for shock value’s sake.
The publicity that Killer Joe garnered from its controversial NC-17 rating, and the futile but-to-gain-yet-more-publicity appeal of that quite appropriate rating, did far more good than damage. Compare it to the situation in the UK, for example, where Killer Joe was just passed uncut with the slightly-higher 18 certificate and was consequently not even a blip on anybody’s radar – there was no public ratings furore; no denied appeal; no controversial release of the film ‘un-classified’; and Friedkin didn’t even get the chance to talk about ‘Nam.
Now, of course, half the people who want to see this movie want to see it because of its ‘controversial NC-17 rating’. Well, certainly you’ll be pretty adequately disturbed (hopefully). And you may well never look at fried chicken in the same way. Whether or not this scene has any greater impact on you than the film has already had – and continues to have afterwards – is hard to determine; an argument can be made that viewers are expecting something to happen, and that Friedkin is compelled to shock because he needs to show something that even those expecting extreme sexual violence will be surprised by. To that end he succeeds, but it’s a hollow victory, as the movie’s greatest power comes not from its violence, but from its promise of violence; not from what is done, but from what is threatened will be done. The dialogue is oftentimes considerably more effective than what happens in-between the dialogue.
Indeed undoubtedly the best thing about Killer Joe is the performances. It’s no surprise then that the film is adapted from the screenwriter’s own play by the same name – you can clearly see from the limited set-scope and restricted characters that this is a dialogue-driven piece which would work extremely well on-stage. Ironically though, whilst Friedkin doesn’t appear to be capable of handling the lapsing of time across the narrative, he adeptly handles the small-scale scope of the material, efficiently interpreting the play material as an effective movie variation. Never is this more evident than in the quintet of main characters who dominate the piece – the majority of supporting characters barely even acknowledged on-screen in the flesh. It’s a clever move, and it certainly allows the five actors to shine.
Emile Hirsch has certainly come a long way from the affable atypical coming-of-age drama, The Girl Next Door, what with his impressive foray Into the Wild, and offering solid support in the likes of Alpha Dog and Milk. Here he is reliably reprehensible as the lowest-of-the-low drug dealer Chris; the hapless amoral idiot whose ideas and actions generally just make things worse.
Thomas Haden Church – Oscar Nominated for Sideways and utterly wasted in Spiderman 3 – is on great form as the imbecile father; apathetic, lazy and unquestionably moronic in every way, even his son, however despicable his behaviour may be, is smarter than him. Despite being built like the proverbial outhouse, Church still convinces in the role – you believe that this guy would behave like this. Indeed there’s only one moment where he slips, and where the movie slips with him, a tiny bit where he shouts “I’ve got his legs” and almost makes a mockery of what should be a painfully brutal sequence (thankfully the subsequent twist manages to smother over this brief bit of incongruity).
Juno Temple, who you may recognise from Atonement, or, more recently, as the partner of Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, tackles one of the toughest roles – that of the Chris’s mentally limited younger sister, who the corrupt cop / contract killer Joe takes a shine to. She manages to be both innately child-like and strangely aware, ostensibly naive but secretly quite opinionated, and the twisted relationship she shares with Joe is no better or worse than the eerily incestuous bond she has with her brother. It’s the kind of role that Juliette Lewis would have been first choice for, back in the day, but Temple does a far better job than Lewis has ever shown herself capable of, bringing us the only character who comes close to being likable – or at least pitiable.
The last two performances that complete the quintet of central roles are arguably the best and are certainly the most memorable. Gina Gershon (Bound, Face/Off) reportedly commented that this role – and perhaps most specifically her participation in the film’s most notorious scene – will finally give her fans something to talk about other than Showgirls. She’s not wrong. Playing the slutty step-mom she is perhaps at her least sexy ever, despite the overt nudity, and genuinely convinces as the utter tramp who somehow – despite her behaviour – you even feel a little bit sorry for when she is forced to do something that is utterly demeaning, even to her.
Of course the man who has – quite rightly – received the biggest acclaim is Matthew McConaughey. The man has finally managed to jettison that vapid pretty-boy aura that saw him pigeon-holed for the majority of his career. It’s a shame that he’s taken this long, with only a few vehicles – like the legal dramas A Time to Kill and The Lincoln Lawyer, and the crime mysteries Lone Star and Frailty – which have broken free of the standard set in the likes of Fool’s Gold, Failure to Launch and The Wedding Planner (the same lightweight persona that unfortunately contributed towards the flop that was Sahara). I actually thought that The Lincoln Lawyer would be something of a comeback for him, and would also allow him access to his first franchise, with continuing works of author Michael Connolly providing plenty of sequels for him to work on. However, it’s his starring role in Killer Joe and his Oscar-tipped support in Soderbergh’s Magic Mike which have finally made audiences sit up and take notice of something other than his looks.
Indeed, for Killer Joe, he goes above and beyond, and even looks positively ill, complimenting his character’s mentally ill issues. His brow is often clammy, his eyes are perpetually bloodshot, and he skin has a slight jaundiced look to it – all of which is nothing when you hear what he has to say, and when you get to finally see him in action. Evil personified, you still can’t help but appreciate Joe’s twisted professionalism, especially when surrounded by incompetent idiots. It’s an intense, oppressive performance, not wholly unlike a Texas version of Christian Bale’s American Psycho, and boasting the same sort of darkly comic satirical edge to it.
You would be quite justified in watching Killer Joe for the performances alone – it’s not the first time, pretty-much any Daniel Day-Lewis film which hasn’t been critically acclaimed holds that same merit and, of late, we’ve seen films like Rampart (with a career-high effort from Woody Harrelson), Kiera Knightley in A Dangerous Method, and the Andrea “Fish Tank” Arnold adaptation of Wuthering Heights all fitting the same category of similarly not-as-good-as-they-were-hyped-up-to-be dramas which are still worth watching for their noteworthy performances. The trouble is, if you do end up watching Killer Joe for the acting alone, then you absolutely most positively MUST prepare yourself for one of the most disturbing movies of 2012. This isn’t shock-horror-torture-porn a la Hostel (thankfully!) but it’s arguably even more striking; the shocking scenes of psychosexual degradation will likely not leave you anytime soon – in that respect it’s certainly not wholly unlike The Killer Inside Me, even if it is slightly more tolerable here. Those who are familiar with only McConaughey’s more fluffy vehicles will also be in for a shock, as will those who only remember Gina Gershon in Showgirls.
Unfortunately, it’s really only the director’s fans who might be disappointed. Sure, it’s nice to see the once-great legend back doing a relatively high-profile movie, but it’s difficult to tell just how much of his trademark magic he still has, and just how much he has lost in the 25 years since his last great film. There’s something unfinished about his work on Killer Joe, with haphazard editing that cannot possible be classed as ‘a style’ at all, and instead merely smacks of cheap, even shoddy workmanship. You could blame it on the editor but, considering this is Friedkin’s first major release in a decade, I choose to blame him – after all, if he cared at all about his work then his stamp of approval would have gone over every single moment in the end product (especially after the ‘Nam speech) and, if he doesn’t care enough about his work to notice what his editor has done wrong, well, then he’s certainly missed a step. I’d still recommend a watch – the performances are arguably enough to sink your teeth into and pull you away from the distracting idiosyncrasies of the rest of the movie – but the flaws certainly make me wonder whether the original stage play is any better from not having Friedkin’s influence tinkering with it.
Don’t just pick up Killer Joe to watch the chicken scene. It’s got a more to offer than its publicity-grabbing controversy would have you believe. And don’t expect a William Friedkin classic, there’s nothing more than mere hints of Friedkin’s genius here. What it does offer are a masterful, memorable quintet of central performances and a dark and twisted story of murder-down-south which is part American Psycho and part Blood Simple. It’s far from a perfect film, and its flaws oftentimes threaten to distract you away from its merits, but the performances alone that should still earn this film a watch.
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