Sunday, January 20, 2013

Killer Joe

The tagline for Killer Joe, the newest film from acclaimed director William Friedkin, is “A totally twisted deep-fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story”. As ridiculous as that sounds it completely sums up this crazy little flick in more ways than one.

Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is in a bit of a financial pickle, and along with his deadbeat Dad (Thomas Haden Church) comes up with a plan to hire local policeman/hitman Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to murder his mother so they can collect her life insurance money. When things go awry in more ways than one, Killer Joe demands that his payment for services rendered be the love of Chris’ simple sister, Dottie (Juno Temple).

I knew nothing of this film’s story before watching it, only that it had turned up on various “Top 10 Films of 2012” lists across the internet. Out of curiosity I rented it from the local Redbox and was enormously surprised at how engagingly deranged it was. I discovered that it was based on a stage play, which completely makes sense after watching it, and even though it features some horrific images and brutal violence it never stops being entertaining. In fact, as it played out before me I realized that it was basically a redneck version of Blood Simple. Not that that’s a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all.
It’s a simple story about simple people doing incredibly stupid things and dealing with the consequences in ridiculously stupid, and somewhat insane, ways. It is shot in a basic fashion to keep in line with its theater roots. The film, like a stage play, is all about the performances. I cannot stress how amazing the acting on display is here.

I don’t recall Matthew McConaughey ever playing a part like this before since as far back as I can remember he’s always been cast as the charming romantic lead (except in Reign of Fire or A Time to Kill), but being that I’m not a fan of his goes to show how awesome he is as Killer Joe if I’m giving him such accolades. He owns this film as Joe, who appears on the surface to be a calm and cool professional killer, but is basically a sad and lonely dirtbag who likes to intimidate and torture people just because he can due to the fact that he’s a cop. We get to see how brutal he can be (the final scene) and his awkward sensitive side (the dinner scene) and how twisted he can be (everything in between). He goes for broke and comes out aces. I have to give him props for accepting a role against type, especially after his acclaimed turn in Magic Mike. I think I will be paying a little more attention to his films in the future.
I’ve also never been a fan of Emile Hirsch or Thomas Haden Church either. But here they seem to be feeding off McConaughey’s craziness to amplify their own, and in turn give outstanding performances as the men of the completely dysfunctional family at the core of the story. Church’s sad sack of a father figure especially took me aback as he’s always playing the dominant male character or villain.

I’ve always known that Gina Gershon was a great actress (just watch her in Bound or The Insider), she only picks horrible movies to star in that never really give her a chance to show off her skills (Showgirls, Demonlover, Driven, Best of the Best 3). Here she starts off appearing to have a minor part that she’s slogging through, but at the halfway point she becomes a more prominent character and by the end she’s going toe-to-toe with Joe to compete for the title of Biggest Asshole of the Year. She comes out of nowhere and knocks her role out of the park, and even though she’s playing a horrible person she gives her character a small touch of sympathy that is welcome among all the double crossing going on.
The real reason to watch this movie is for Juno Temple. The only other movie I’ve seen her in was The Dark Knight Rises as Selina Kyle’s roommate, but as the simple-minded and innocent Dottie she proves that she has what it takes to be one of the new wave of crazy talented actors for the new generation. I never once saw her as an actress playing a part; she completely inhabits the role of Dottie and makes her a sweet and likable girl that doesn’t realize just how much everyone around her tries to control her life. Only when someone new attempts to remove her from this lifestyle does she begin to wise up and take matters into her own hands. I can’t wait to see what Juno Temple has in store for us in the future.

All of this would be for noting if not for the original material written by playwright Tracy Letts and director William Friedkin. After seeing this I might have to look up some of Letts’ previous work for shits and giggles. Friedkin, who directed classics like The Exorcist (which I’ve never been a fan of) and The French Connection (awesome!), proves he still has what it takes to make a solid film after most of his other work has been less than stellar (Rules of Engagement, The Hunted, Jade, Blue Chips, The Guardian). It’s material that I’m sure he found fascinating since most of his projects are a little on the perverted side, and this film has plenty of that going on during the finale (I’ll never look at fried chicken the same way again). He makes everything seem real and believable and keeps the actors from taking their ridiculous shenanigans into camp territory, which is something this movie could have easily slipped into. The fact that he was able to make all these horrible characters somewhat likeable is a feat in itself. But his greatest moment is that at one point, after an orgy of violence and depravity, he turns this gaggle of selfish, devious people into a family unit for one fleeting moment. Superb stuff.
But all is not superawesomeamazeballs up in the world of Killer Joe, particularly the unsatisfying and haphazard final moments of the film. Some startling revelations about characters are revealed, some truly fucked up shit goes down and then the movie just sort of ends during a major beat in the story. 30 seconds more is all I asked for out of closure’s sake, but I didn’t get it. I have to admit that I was extremely disappointed by this choice on the part of the filmmakers. Does it ruin the movie? Not at all.

If you see this film at the Redbox I highly recommend it. It might not be for all tastes since it is based on a stage play which means it’s mostly dialogue scenes and no real action, but the story is great and it features some awesome performances by talented people. It does go to a very dark place, but if you can handle that you’ll find it a very entertaining and surprisingly funny dark comedy of sorts. I for one loved it regardless of the lackluster ending. So much so that it’s on my list of “Favorite Films of 2012”.

4 out of 5

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