Friday, September 28, 2012

Review: "Seven Psychopaths"

Director: Martin McDonagh
Runtime: 109 minutes

A wild, meandering, and darkly funny ride through LA, Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths may be a lesser film than In Bruges, but it is satisfying on its own terms. Ultimately, the Irish writer/director's second feature film lacks the legitimate pathos and hard-hitting laughs of his 2008 film. However, if Psychopaths is less funny, it is also considerably more interesting from a narrative standpoint. In Bruges took the hit men in hiding concept and executed it with McDonagh's fresh mix of dark comedy and bloody tragedy. Psychopaths, however, starts out as a caper-gone-wrong, yet takes some surprising turns and becomes increasingly meta, with enormously entertaining and unexpected results. 

Marty (Colin Farrell) is a struggling screenwriter in LA, who is trying to put together his next project. It involves seven psychopaths, although Marty has only been able to come up with one. Desperate to help him is his long-time friend Billy (Sam Rockwell). When he's not trying to help (or hinder) Marty's writing or chastising him about his drinking, Billy also runs a dog-napping business with the pacifistic Hans (Christopher Walken). Unfortunately, just as Marty is starting to get his screenplay going, he gets dragged into Billy's shenanigans after Billy steals a dog belonging to a rage-prone mobster (Woody Harrelson). 

But, as the characters later reflect, that's just the beginning. There may be cliches in Seven Psychopaths, but unlike so many other crime films, McDonagh's is self-aware, and never in an obnoxious way. McDonagh's screenplay doesn't afford his characters the same level of hilarious dialogue that In Bruges  did, but there is certainly meaty material for the cast to dig into. Rockwell and Walken fare best, and McDonagh wisely gives both of them plenty of  dialogue to have a blast with. Rockwell is reckless with a twinkle in his eye, and has fleeting moments of sadness and disappointment which the actor skillfully brings to life. And Walken manages to overcome potential typecasting as an eccentric weirdo to deliver an actual performance. Not only is he effective at navigating the comedy and tragedy of McDonagh's script, but his pronunciation of the word "hallucinogens" is worth the price of admission. Like Rockwell's work, Walken is playing an oddity as far as characters go: he's rounded, yet not terribly deep. That description applies to the film as a whole as well, yet somehow it's not a bad trait in this case. 

Yet as broad as the characters are, it's in these two roles (of the main ensemble) that McDonagh is able to inject the hint of something deeper. Seven Psychopaths has the interesting ability to create a sense of drama out of thin air without feeling forced. This is, after all, a crime film, which means there's plenty of bullets fired and lives taken. So even though much of the film is ultimately a rather surface-oriented dark comedy, McDonagh still makes his characters worth caring about, even if we're not deeply invested in them.

Other roles are nicely handled as well, though none really have the meat of Rockwell and Walken's roles. Farrell, as the audience stand-in (and also something of a stand-in for McDonagh), is stuck being an observer for so much that he isn't really given anything to push him. I still think that Farrell and McDonagh make a perfect actor-director pairing, but hopefully their next collaboration (assuming it happens) gives Farrell material more in line with In Bruges to work with. Instead, Farrell probably comes in fourth among the cast (third place to Woody Harrelson's one-note anger/menace). Not far behind are a series of killer cameos and side roles (including a rabbit-toting Tom Waits) who only add to the meta-ness of the enterprise. 

Coming in last, as part of a bit of the film's commentary on gangster movies, are the main female roles, filled out (in form only) by Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurlyenko. Thankfully, In Bruges showed that McDonagh has no aversion to good female characters (hell, even the pregnant hotel manager in In Bruges was good), because he certainly isn't doing his ladies any favors here. McDonagh does acknowledge the point of their limited and empty roles, and he actually prevents the weak female presence from becoming a weird, sexist hindrance (and there is some nice work from female cast members...just not the listed ones). McDonagh is commenting on the weakness of female characters in crime films, and he's smart enough to avoid portraying all women as weak as part of his "commentary." 

Because, above all else, what's on McDonagh's mind isn't so much commentary as a look at story-telling and narrative cleverness. In ways that are too funny and surprising to spoil, Seven Psychopaths is a blood-stained love letter to the creative process, even as it sends up traits of an entire cinematic genre. As previously demonstrated by films like Hot Fuzz, a film that mixes satire and sincerity can often transcend its genre. That's certainly the cast with this film, which rises above being just another crime film by at times refusing to be a crime film at all (or at least delaying inevitable scenes). And it's in these detours that the film becomes the most surprising and engaging. This is a film where one can only guess a character's fate in his or her last minutes (or seconds), but not several acts before. 

And in addition to being well-written, directed, and acted, the production values aren't too shabby either. The cinematography nicely captures the sun-baked Los Angeles vistas, while still allowing for a wide range of colors to exist in the frame. The editing is also a marvel, and it keeps the story flowing with clean, precise cuts that keep even the still scenes on their toes. The lone letdown is, perhaps, Carter Burwell's score. It's appropriately low-key and fits the film perfectly, but unlike Burwell's work on In Bruges, it possesses no moment or theme that allows it to become something more than generically effective. 

What's ultimately most impressive about Seven Psychopaths is how well it succeeds on its own terms. Narrative cleverness takes precedence over character development, but McDonagh never overreaches. The film's impact is lighter than that of In Bruges, both as comedy and tragedy, but there is no feeling of disappointment once the credits roll. This is a film (and script) that is comfortable with itself, and as such, is able to turn its overall lesser quality into a striking advantage. Deeper, richer films are likely in store for us over the coming months. That said, I have no doubt that, at year's end, Seven Psychopaths will stand as one of 2012's cleverest and most satisfying, depth or no depth. 

Grade: B+

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Review: "Arbitrage"

Director: Nicholas Jarecki
Runtime: 107 minutes

I have no doubt in my mind that Nicholas Jarecki's Arbitrage is a solid movie. It is solidly acted, solidly made, and gets better as it goes along and the stakes increase. All that it's really missing is something special, whether in the form of a stirring performance or a unique score. Arbitrage is the epitome of the type of film that satisfies the desire for engaging, adult-minded entertainment, yet leaves your mind barely after you exit the theater. 

Playing off of the 1% vs. 99% concept that has thoroughly engulfed the nation in recent years, Jarecki's film centers on Robert Miller (Richard Gere), a hedge fund king trying to sell his company. When Miller's longstanding affair with a French art dealer ends in tragedy, he struggles to cover up his involvement, and keep his empire afloat long enough to close the sale. 

Jarecki weaves an interesting tale of financial and moral deception and has a knack for communicating information without deluging the audience. He also has material solid enough for Gere, Susan Sarandon (as Robert's wife), and Brit Marling (Robert's daughter Brooke, a rising business star) to turn in effective performances. The women are perhaps more impressive because their roles initially seem thankless, yet both have moments to deliver on the emotional front. Ultimately this is Robert's story through and through, and Gere makes for a dynamic, albeit never truly compelling, lead, to the point where you almost want him to get away with everything. 

But step back from Arbitrage, and the utter vanilla-ness of the whole enterprise only becomes more clear. Jarecki has fashioned an interesting tale, but without diverse enough characters and personalities to push the material to the next level. For that reason alone, the film's MVP is actually Nate Parker as a Harlem-based twenty something caught up in Miller's escapades and thrown under the bus. He's the one element in the whole film whose involvement feels unexpected, and his character's relationship with Miller informs the film's best scenes. But one interesting piece isn't enough. That's not to rain on the film's parade as an assured debut. Jarecki deserves that much credit. It's just not a debut that excites with its promise. It merely assures us that Jarecki can deliver thoughtful competence. 

Grade: B-/C+

Monday, September 17, 2012

Review: "The Master"

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Runtime: 137 minutes

"We are not animals. Maaaaaan is not a part of the animal kingdom," intones Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) over a tape to his followers in The Master. Yet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), by his very existence, seems to have been planted on this earth to challenge Dodd's assertion. The two play off of each other in a manner that feels like an evolved version of the father-son bond in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will be Blood. Only this time, the "son" figure isn't so impressionable, and is more like a wild animal in need of taming. Where Blood was overall more centered on one man's journey, Anderson's latest brings the father figure/son figure conflict to the forefront. The results may not be as immediately epic, but they are equally compelling, and quite obviously the work of a master.

Set amid the aftermath of WWII, The Master follows Phoenix's Freddie as he struggles to make his way in the world after returning from combat. He struggles to interact with others, often breaking out into fits of lust or violence, which doesn't exactly go over well at his various places of employment. He also has a fixation with crafting insanely strong alcoholic concoctions, which involve zesty ingredients like paint thinner. After one bout of drunkenness, Freddie stumbles aboard a ship bound for New York City. Its passengers are Dodd, his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), and the devoted followers of The Cause, Dodd's religion/philosophy/vague Scientology stand-in. Despite their drastically different natures, Dodd's civilized man and Quell's twitchy anti-socialite, they begin to bond. Dodd introduces Freddie to his family and his followers, and takes him under his wing in an attempt to help him overcome his demons. 

Rumored to be loosely based on the founding of Scientology, Anderson eschews controversy and allows Dodd and The Cause to act as their own entities. There's no mention of thetans or Lord Xenu, but The Cause does involve sessions that might have some resemblance to auditing processes that often come up in Scientology discussions. Dodd's devout followers are more than ready to be "processed," while Quell presents a special sort of challenge. And from this challenge comes The Master's greatest strength. From the Quell-Dodd dynamic Anderson manages to craft an understatedly epic drama about man's resistance and submission to various forms of authority. Quell may be under Dodd's seemingly all-encompassing wing, but even Dodd goes quietly when an incident results in his arrest. Freddie, meanwhile, has no master, and he fights the authorities off like a rabid dog. 

As embodied by Phoenix and Hoffman, these two figures command one's attention, whether they're sharing the screen or not. Hoffman, a longtime Anderson collaborator, delivers a mix of self-importance and self-righteousness that is coupled with an easy going, affable patriarch figure. Through Anderson's lens we're able to see Dodd as a manipulator, a caring father, and even a boorish drunk, and Hoffman makes the character's facets flow together seamlessly. Yet even though Hoffman may play the titular Master, it's Phoenix who owns the film. His face is perpetually contorted into a half sneer, half twitch, further enforcing the idea that he sticks out from normal society. Phoenix's posture is another marvel of physical acting. His gaunt, emaciated frame is constantly hunched over, and he roams through many scenes like some mentally unstable vulture.  As the man and the man-animal bond and clash, the acting fireworks are few and far between, but both men hit their marks when the time comes.

Though not nearly as prominent, Amy Adams is also excellent. Anderson uses the character sparingly, and the actress takes on the mix of charming house wife and iron maiden with aplomb. Other characters abound, but the core of the film is Phoenix and Hoffman's dynamic, and Anderson never strays from this. This strategy allows the film some room to incorporate its third leading man: Mr. Anderson himself. Continuing his Kubrick-influenced phase, the director has once again created a world of character study blown up against an inexplicably epic-feeling backdrop, all while retaining an eerie sense of distance. The filmmaking is unsentimental to the max, even as it charts the ups and downs of Quell and Dodd's relationship, as well as their relationship to society at large. Coupled with Anderson's screenplay, this can lead to the film meandering. But what compelling meandering it is. 

The opening stretches of The Master, most notably Quell and Dodd's first encounter, represent the driest portions. Yet once the narrative settles into the middle (and the film is 85-90% shapeless middle), Anderson cuts loose. The film runs for over two hours, yet it rarely, if ever, lags, despite the sense that the massive middle isn't building to an obvious conclusion. Anderson takes great pleasure in luxuriating in his character's lives, and watching Freddie struggle to cope with The Cause's subtly (perhaps randomly) evolving methods and teachings showcases the director's best Kubrickian influences. 

Further enhancing Anderson's grasp over the material is the first class work from his artistic and technical collaborators. Longtime Anderson cinematographer Robert Elswitt may be absent, but replacement Mihai Malaimare Jr. fills his shoes and crafts some remarkable imagery that adds to the low-key epic feel of the film. Anderson's returning collaborators don't disappoint either. Costume designer Mark Bridges (fresh off of an Oscar win for The Artist) convincingly recreates the period along with the spare but excellent production design of Jack Fisk. And returning composer Jonny Greenwood creates another moody and menacing score, announcing its presence without manipulating our emotions. Greenwood has, once again, composed music that makes itself known, yet compliments the atmosphere without drawing attention away from the characters. 

There are many who may be turned off by The Master. Its initial dryness may, for some, extend beyond the first few reels. And, as was often the case with Kubrick, the perceived distance from the characters, despite their centrality, may turn some off of the performances. Those expecting another There Will be Blood could also potentially find themselves let down, or merely taken aback by the film's less forward-charging narrative. And then there are those who will, for whatever odd difference, be able to bask in the film's clinical pleasures just as Freddie soaks up the sun as he lies on the beach, his head rested up against a woman made out of sand. The animal in his natural habitat, free from any master.

Grade: A

Friday, September 14, 2012

Review: "Chicken with Plums"

Director(s): Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parronaud
Runtime: 93 minutes

It takes a different set of skills to successfully execute live action film making and animation. And the transition from one to the other also comes with its own challenges. One need look no further than Pixar alums Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton to see where going from one style to the other can work (the former's Mission Impossible 4) and flounder (the latter's - admittedly very pretty - John Carter). Now what about merging the two together? An even bigger artistic, technical, and logistical uphill climb. You wouldn't know it, however, if you went by the unqualified success that is Chicken with Plums. Written and directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parronaud, this sophomore effort from the creators of Persepolis (2007) is a small, vibrant, and emotional tale of life, death, love, and desire. 

Set in Tehran but starring an array of actors (all of whom speak in French) from across the globe, Satrapi and Parronaud have seemingly reversed their focus as storytellers. Where Persepolis (a more politically involved work) tracked the growth of a girl in Iran under the Shah, Plums deals with a middle-aged man reflecting on his past as he contemplates his own end. Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) plays Nasser Ali Khan, a highly respected violinist whose instrument has been broken. His quest for a replacement proves fruitless, even after he acquires a Stradivarius. Having lost all zest for life, and deciding that suicide presents too many problems (humorously rendered in fluidly integrated mixes of live action and animation), Khan simply gives up the will to live, and waits in his room for death to come. 

From this point on, the film is divided among Khan's last eight days. Yet rather than turn this narrative device into a creative crutch, Satrapi and Parronaud bring the Khan's days alive to marvelous effect. Shifting among live action, animation, and hybrids of the two, Khan's time spent wasting away is anything but a drag. By turns lively, exciting, odd, somber, and darkly humorous, the co-directors weave a beautifully constructed, constantly-moving journey through their protagonist's dreams, memories, and fantasies. Some are fleeting, like Khan's lustful daydreams of a visit from Sophia Loren, where he finds his head squished in her comically exaggerated cleavage. Others go on longer and incorporate all three styles of filmmaking. This includes the best segment, wherein Khan meets with Azrael, the angel of death. Fittingly, the encounter isn't dour or frightening, but oddly funny, and engaging. Contrary to instinct, the cartoonish elements of the film's sequences actually add to its depth. Think of Khan's encounter with Azrael as the more vivid cousin to the knight's encounter with Death in The Seventh Seal (fittingly, both scenes involve chess). 

And as the narrative moves closer towards Khan's death, Satrapi and Parronaud's narrative tapestry only grows deeper and richer. The animation may bequeath a lighter, fantastical touch, but at the end of the day the writer/directors never lose sight of where their tale is headed. Dropping in on memories of Khan's first love, and his subsequent forced marriage to Faringuisse (Maria de Madeiros) adds nuance to what could have been a surface-only affair. The film's tone and style suggest something broad and manipulative, yet despite the story of lost love and the charming score, Chicken with Plums establishes itself as a rich and engrossing fairy tale. 

Anchoring all of it is Mathieu Amalric, who uses his sensitive, Gallic face (and somewhat bulging eyes) to breathe tremendous life into Khan. His conversations with his wife are expertly handled, suggesting a man who is split between the love for his current wife, and the haunting memory of his first love. Not helping matters is the fact that, despite some deep seated love, Khan and Faringuisse's marriage is severely strained. Though Khan proclaims himself an artist, it's been a long time since he's worked, putting all of financial burden on Faringuisse, who believes he should support the family as the patriarch. Their relationship also plays a key role in Khan's melancholy, yet the script avoids the pitfall of turning Faringuisse into a one-note harpy. The story belongs to Khan, but the film is wise enough to give other characters a fair shake, and never justifies some of Khan's behavior, even as it helps us understand him. 

For all of its fanciful imagery, real, animated, or both, what makes Chicken with Plums the surprisingly moving success that it is comes down to Satrapi and Parronaud's ability to always keep Khan's story front and center. The animation and visuals are often wondrous, with swirling lines and layers popping out like a subtle pop-up yet the directors never indulge just to show off their visual prowess. It may not make quite the mark that Satrapi and Parronaud's debut made, but at the very least it further establishes them as a storytellers gifted at capturing the imagination emotionally and visually in excellent balance. 

Grade: B+

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review: "Bullhead"

Director: Michael Roskam
Runtime: 123 minutes

Questions of masculinity run throughout Michael Roskam's agricultural thriller (stay with me) Bullhead. Whether it's an undercover gay cop or a man coping with a horrific injury from his past, the heart of the film, aside from its twisty plot involving a battle between cops and smugglers, comes down to what it means to be a man, and the lengths people go to in order to feel content with their masculinity, whether to themselves, or to others. It's territory rife with potential for cliches, yet Roskam, in an impressive debut, pulls it all together beautifully. With the help of a stunning turn from leading man Matthias Schoenaerts (also seen this year in Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone), Bullhead cements itself as one of the year's most gripping films, foreign language or not. 

However, let's first clear up a bit of date confusion. Bullhead was nominated for Foreign Language Film at the most recent Academy Awards. However, unlike winner A Separation, the film received no theatrical (festivals don't count) US release in the 2011 calendar year. So, for all intents and purposes, for the US (and for all other Oscar categories), Bullhead is a 2012 film with an unfortunate early release date that has killed any chance it might have had of earning some other awards love from the Academy. A shame, because Schoenaerts' performance alone is worthy of some attention come year's end (but more on that later).

In short, the plot involves cattle farmer Jacky (Schoenaerts) being approached to make a deal with some nefarious beef traders, who specialize in using illegal steroids to help the bulls mature faster. Elsewhere, a police officer's murder, and the subsequent investigation, set in motion a related chain of events involving an undercover policeman with connections to Jacky's past. Predictably (one of the few instances where the word applies), the investigation and Jacky's involvement with the beef traders are set on a inevitable collision course. Thankfully, Roskam's storytelling more than compensates for the one seemingly obvious aspect of the story, and keeps one off edge as to exactly how or when the forces on opposite sides of the law will meet. 

Jumping between Jacky and gay cop Diederick (Jeroen Perceval), Roskam manages to impressively weave the story together, little details, side characters, and all, for most of the film's 2 hour duration. As writer and director, Roskam has a mostly successful concept of gradually developing the film, while offsetting said development with lots of fluid camera work. The character of Jacky, in particular, is almost always in movement, his bulky, steroid-enhanced frame often trudging across the screen in some direction. And when Jacky is in stasis, the emotions start to bubble forth, and Schoenaerts handles the releases of deeply felt rage, emasculation, and vulnerability with a beautiful and understated intensity. As important as Dierderick is to the plot, the film's heart ultimately lies with Jacky, his layers peeled back with careful measure. 

Outside of the main duo, the cast is uniformly capable, though they're all ultimately side characters who do more to influence the plot than develop the film's themes. At times, this can lead Bullhead into iffy territory. Towards the middle of the film, the narrative threads surrounding the investigation and Jacky's life start to feel too separate for their own good, despite the efficient cutting. There is also the risk that, with so many supporting characters who strictly serve the plot, the film might alienate some viewers in this midsection. Some films have their weakest moments at the beginning or end, but Roskam's troubles (though never major problems) pop up in the middle, which slightly throws off the narrative progression between its ample set up and its move towards the finish line. 

This small quirk aside (it barely qualifies as an error in my eyes), however, does little to diminish the film's power once it ramps up for the home stretch. As the main threads of the story begin to re-intertwine, Roskam and his co-workers on both sides of the camera are able to make the film really connect. And if the film's quality dips in the middle,the quality of Schoenaerts' work only goes up and up the whole way through. Rich, moody cinematography and effective musical contributions only enhance the experience, and the big emotional (and physical) climax is a rousing success, despite the dour tone. Jacky may spend the majority of the film feeling incomplete as a man, but his journey as handled by Roskam, is wholly satisfying and moving.

Grade: A-

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Review: "Samsara"

Director: Ron Fricke
Runtime: 102 minutes

It would be quite easy to accuse Ron Fricke of repeating himself. In addition to serving as cinematographer on Godfrey Reggio's masterful Koyanisqaatsi, he also directed and photographed Baraka. The man has quite the track record when it comes to meditative silent documentaries about our world and man's place in it (it's the one category Netflix doesn't have). The title of his latest has uses in several languages and cultures (the word itself is Sanskrit). For Fricke's purposes, Samsara is the "continuous flow" of the cycle of birth, life, and death. Whereas Fricke's Baraka examined the clash between nature and industrialized life, here his focus is even more ambitious, and despite the pretty 70mm images on display, it is perhaps an even deeper and darker film, even as it awes us with beauty. 

Shot in over 20 countries over a five year period, somewhere out there, I'm certain, is a massive 24-hour long director's cut that will never see the light of day. What we're left with after all of Fricke's hard work is about 100 minutes, and surprisingly, it gets the job done quite nicely. Samsara never elevates the senses at the same level as Koyanisqaatsi's strongest sections (ex: the adrenaline rush-inducing sped up footage from inside a traveling car), but it perhaps does a stronger job of making its rather broad, spiritually-based point. The film opens with scenes of humanity where old traditions are still highly revered. There's little in the way of technology, and people work with their hands, even to create painstaking works of art that are only meant for temporary display. Some of the early stretches are a tad lacking in atmosphere and energy, but Samsara does kick into gear soon enough, albeit at a low enough level that it might take you a while to fully notice. 

Predictably, Fricke's photography is glorious to behold, and the mix of editing techniques (speeding up, slowing down, still shots, fluid camera movement, etc...) and general image assembly are remarkable. One would think that time lapse shots of light and shadow would grow tiresome after a while (there's more here than in the average episode of Breaking Bad), yet somehow Fricke's images retain a freshness. It also helps that, even when photographing the stunning locals, that Fricke doesn't indulge in any obvious methods of artificiality. The images are beautiful, and they also feel real. Fricke also astounds with his use of 70mm film, employing it to spectacular effect in scenes both big (and I mean BIG) and small. 

Of course, there are images that, despite their impressive composition and geometry, aren't so beautiful. Shots of cows on a circular conveyor belt or of chickens being sucked into a caging device are certainly less than pleasant (enjoy the close-up look at an assembly line of workers gutting pig carcasses). Surprisingly, it's not vegan propaganda, but rather a very smart and unsettling way to illustrate one of Samsara's points. Despite the massive amounts of organized production in the world, there is still an imbalance as to where the fruits of said production go. Rather than feel like an awkward bit of commentary, this angle only enhances the film's standing as an important work. Fricke is also wise in that he avoids saving the less pleasant moments for last as a cheap bit of sensationalism. These problems exist, say Fricke's images, but there is also goodness, beauty, vivacity, energy, etc... And the cycle goes on.

Grade: B/B+ 

Review: "Killer Joe"

Director: William Friedkin
Runtime: 102 minutes

There may be bouts of violence scattered across William Friedkin's Killer Joe, but like its titular protagonist, the "best" and bloodiest is saved for last. Rightfully earning an NC-17 rating, Friedkin's film, an adaptation of Tracy Letts' play of the same name, may feature brutal violence that borders on exploitation, but remains a thrilling piece of filmmaking. In addition to strong performances from its ensemble, Friedkin succeeds for two crucial reasons. The first is that the adaptation (by Letts himself) has been translated so as to feel wholly cinematic. The second, perhaps even more important, is that the film manages to look at low down, trashy characters without ever feeling as though it's also trash. While the setting and violence may prove a deterrent, the film remains worthy of a look, considering the strengths of the acting, writing, directing. It's bloody and at times wince-inducing, but it's also a bloody good time.

Set in a crummy Texas town, the film revolves around the trailer park antics of the smith family. Oldest son Chris (Emile Hirsch) finds himself in $6000 of debt to some vicious local drug dealers. Pushing along his somewhat slow father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), Chris hatches a plan to hire a Dallas cop named 'Killer' Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to help them. This involves having Joe kill Chris' biological mother (never seen on screen), so that the $50,000 life insurance policy will be sent to Chris' younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple).

And, against considerable odds, Killer Joe manages to actually separate the fine line between simply displaying stupid people and their bad decisions, and actively engaging with them. The characters may not be terribly bright (though many are schemeres in one way or another), but because of the setting any stupidity on the part of the characters doesn't feel like bad writing. It's a smart look at stupidity, an examination that calls to mind some of Joel and Ethan Coen's filmography in how it looks at people getting into something way over their heads, and the bad decisions and outcomes that follow. 

That said, the Coens have never made something with as much sensationalist nudity, sexuality, and violence as is seen here. That's part of the reason why Friedkin is so well chosen for the director's chair. Just as the Coens were a perfect match for Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, Killer Joe is right up Friedkin's alley (this marks his second adaptation of a Letts play, after 2006's Bug). Though there are moments when the dialogue begins to border on repetitive or drawn out (the opening scene of Chris banging on a door could be cut in half), Friedkin and editor Darrin Navarro keep things moving along at a pace that effectively blends moments of fluidity and stagnation. This is aided further by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel's excellent job of capturing the characters and their settings, whether in stationary shots or with the camera roving around the scene. The trinity of Friedkin, Navarro, and Deschanel help Killer Joe overcome the obstacles presented in adapting a play, and make the work feel entirely cinematic.

This is all further bolstered, of course, by the excellent ensemble. Hirsch is strong as the closest thing the film has to a 'straight man.' The actor handles the character's shifting views on his town, his family, and his plan effortlessly. Playing off of each other (and the other cast members) are Haden Church and Gina Gershon (as Ansel's second wife, Sharla).  Haden Church's slow drawl at times feels at odds with some of the other characters, and it's easy to dismiss him early on. In the later scenes, however, that same drawl is put to great effect in some nicely handled moments of dark comedy. The best performance from the Smith family, however, comes from Temple's Dottie. The actress plays on the characters' situations of forced-upon sexuality with the right bit of enthusiasm and anxiety. For all of the times where Dottie is referred to as being a little slow (well, slower), there are little moments where Temple allows the audience to think that there's more than Dottie than meets the eye (thankfully, the script follows through on the actresses' promise).

Finally, there's Matthew McConaughey as the titular bad cop, who would have stolen show if it weren't for the fact that he's the film's lead (along with Hirsch). Of all of the films that have appeared since his career resurfaced with The Lincoln Lawyer, Joe contains his strongest work. The actor deserves comparisons to Javier Bardem in No Country for his tightly coiled portrayal of man determined to keep his (menacing) cool until he's pushed to the breaking point. The role does allow the actor to engage in some of his tics (namely the swagger and drawl) unlike Jeff Nichols' Mud, but the smarminess is gone. The swagger and drawl feel like authentic parts of his austere, magnetic, dangerously slick character. And if the moments of quiet menace weren't enough for the actor to sink his teeth into, McConaughey also gets to completely cut loose in the film's insane finale (the place where if definitively earns its NC-17 rating). 

And what a finale it is. There's violence, ample swearing, and a scene involving Kentucky Fried Chicken that immediately enters into the pantheon of iconically disturbing scenes. And it's perhaps here that Friedkin's direction and Letts' writing are most impressive. Elements of Killer Joe are darkly funny, even in the bloody climax, but the script wisely separates the humor from the brutality, thereby lifting itself above trashy exploitation despite and ensemble fully of trashy people. It's the perfect, mesmerizingly horrific adrenaline rush to the steadily engaging slow-burn that precedes it. The only part of the finale I'm not quite sold on is, unfortunately, the final 10 seconds, which involves a revelation (amid a room full of chaos) and then a cut to black. Unlike No Country, Killer Joe's somewhat open ending actually feels like something of a cop out. For a film that so thoroughly goes out of its way to give you a cinematic rush, it seems odd that it ends anticlimactically. But who knows, maybe that was just Friedkin and Letts' way of sparing us further brutality, and maybe that's for the best. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go check and make sure there isn't any fried chicken in my refrigerator, or else I might have trouble getting to sleep.

Grade: B+