Thursday, September 6, 2012

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+

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