The next Best Picture winner: “Killer Joe”

December 17, 2012

Killer Joe posterHa ha ha! No, I’m totally jerking your chain. Killer Joe is the long-awaited, somewhat-anticipated return of William Friedkin to the helm of a motion picture. His last outing was the 2006 flop Bug—a movie that was not about an infestation of killer bugs, regardless of what the commercials and trailers would have you think (promotional materials basically exist to screw with you). Like that film, Killer Joe is also based on a play by Tracy Letts. Unlike that film, Killer Joe arrives amid a swirl of low-key awe within the critical consensus—which still only amounted to a limited release. Anyway, after seeing Killer Joe, I gotta tell you two things: 1) KJ is a black (very- very-black) comedy, so be prepared for that; and 2) There is no way the Academy is touching this movie with a ten-foot pole while wearing welder’s gloves.

Now, I’m not going to say that any movie that begins with Gina Gershon’s cooch is automatically a bad film—that’s just unfair—but it does pretty much guarantee that the desiccated, old Daywalkers that comprise the majority of the Academy will probably choke on their monocles and then promptly throw their screeners in the fireplace. And then probably declare Playing for Keeps the winner of every award. So, if we have to suffer through a chipmunk stuffed into a tuxedo making an acceptance speech for Best Actor, this movie is the reason why.

So, Killer Joe. Yeah, well, Letts drops us into Stereotypical-White-Trashville USA (actually Dallas), where the fractured Smith clan has decided to kill their matriarch. Well, actually screw-up son Chris (Emile Hirsch) has come up with that brainstorm. As the movie starts, he’s trying to sell his dim-bulb father, Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church), on the plan. See, mom is a total bitch, who split from Ansel and now lives with a new boyfriend, and totally stole Chris’ blow so she could fix up her gold Cadillac, and now Chris is in deep to some bookies. But her new bf disclosed she has a $50,000 life insurance policy, which goes to youngest child Dottie (Juno Temple), who happens to live with Ansel and his new wife Sharla—and owner of the aforementioned cooter—played by Gershon. Dottie is Tennessee Williams-esque woman/child of about 18, so getting the scratch from her shouldn’t be too hard, right?

The hitman Chris has in mind for the job (because as debased as these people are, they draw the line at matricide…you know, for the most part) is the eponymous “Killer” Joe, a Dallas detective who commits contract killings on the side.  Hey, the economy is tough. Joe is underplayed with steely-eyed control by Matthew McConaughey, but from his first meeting with the Smiths, it becomes clear that, yes, he is the devil, and yes, they will have to make a pact.

The first problem is money—the Smith’s don’t have any, and Joe likes to be paid an advance. After watching Dottie prance around a bit, though, Joe agrees to a retainer in the form of her body. Chris and Ansel immediately agree without consulting Dottie, and eventually have to break the news to her that her virginity has been put up as collateral. It doesn’t go well. But in the first of a few narrative twists, Dottie complies, having realized Joe is the only person around with his shit together.

The rest of the plan…well, the parts that don’t involve Joe pretty much go all to hell, culminating in a nerve-crankingly tense confrontation between Joe and the Smiths that’s part drawing-room scene, part horrific retribution, and part revelation. I think it’s safe to say that if you’re not prepared to see Gershon mouth-raped with a piece of chicken, this might not be the movie for you.

I’m not sure the movie is great—it doesn’t seem to have a theme beyond “mouth-breathing trailer-trash will be pwned by a leather-clad Matthew McConaughey”—but it’s performances certainly are top-notch. Hirsch remains a competent, but unexciting actor, and Gershon’s trashiness seems less a performance and more of a nasty affect. Church, Temple, and, especially McConaughey, however, make the movie work.

Church and Temple manage to elevate their characters above the unmistakable disdain Letts clearly feels for them. Temple’s simple-minded innocent is, by turns, pitiably vulnerable and sneakily canny. Church, for his part, has been playing likable oafs long enough to find real nuance in his performances. Ansel is a genial blockhead for much of the film, until confronted with Joe’s darkness, and shows a grim comprehension of the ramifications of the family’s greed and stupidity.

But McConaughey steals the show, reminding us that he was once a promising actor before he became a parody of his ripped, pretty-boy self. Joe is meticulous and calculating as any desert predator and possessed of a seemingly bottomless venality. In his every scene, he is nothing less than complete master of the situation, assessing every angle, every of his counterpart’s weaknesses. It’s a transformative performance that might—might—earn him a Best Actor nod. But probably not.

As a director, Friedkin has always been an unstable quantity. He helped define ‘70s cinema with The French Connection and The Exorcist, only to flame out in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He had one great film in those decades with To Live and Die in LA, but he badly miscalculated with Cruising (itself not a bad movie, but not one strong enough to overcome an overly-suggestive script and toxic publicity that branded him—unfairly, in my opinion—a homophobe) and earned an eternity of badwill with the trainwreck Deal of the Century. His effective, low-key capital punishment meditation Rampage was shelved for years, then barely released, and in the meantime he made such forgettable fare as Rules of Engagement, The Hunted, and that one with the killer tree.

Late in his career, Friedkin seems to have eschewed much of the technical aspects of moviemaking in favor of constrained, character pieces based on plays. It’s an odd direction for a guy who, in his commentary for TLADILA admitted that most of his films come together in the editing room. But he does it well. Killer Joe has none of his earlier, documentary-style detachment and abrupt editing, but instead lets scenes play out between actors. At times, he seems to channeling Quentin Tarantino. It’s a nifty trick.

Anyway, that’s Killer Joe. It’s an interesting, entertaining movie. Probably not a good one to watch with the family over the holidays.

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