Sunday, September 30, 2012

In Theaters: Killer Joe

Killer Joe poster via

A movie like Killer Joe is one I feel compelled to support almost out of principle, because anyone braving the NC-17 rating in this day and age is clearly taking some considerable risk. Never let it be said that William Friedkin has mellowed with age. As with Bug, Tracy Letts adapts from his play, and the results are just as disturbing but in an entirely different way. It's a classic crime thriller in form, but the tone hints at something else altogether, a slippery blend of drama and black comedy that doesn't fall back on the genre's usual beats. Instead it goes to some uniquely terrifying and memorable places, and makes something fresh out of a well-trod genre.

Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch, who can apparently play any kind of part) is a poor, desperate man in debt to a local gangster (Marc Macaulay), and the best way he can think to get the money is to off his junkie mother for the insurance money. His father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), who has since married another woman (Gina Gershon), agrees that she's not doing anyone any good alive. So Chris calls in Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a police detective who moonlights as an assassin. They promise him a cut of the insurance payout, but he insists on collateral- and decides to take it in the form of Ansel's sheltered daughter Dottie (Juno Temple). Chris and Ansel are desperate enough to encourage Dottie to be amenable to Joe's advances, and in any case she is strangely charmed by his cold intensity.

It's easy to figure from early on that something will go wrong with this scheme. The rule of cinematic crime is that the more petty it is, the more likely it will blow up in the perpetrator's faces. Chris Smith is the archetypal career fuckup, always in over his head and in debt to someone and having half-baked ideas on how to get out. But the film's focus is not on how the fiasco plays out, but on the side effect, which is Joe's entry into the Smiths' lives.

McConaughey is magnetic. His performance is the total opposite of the public persona he's displayed; Joe's every move seems calculated, planned, and reasoned, and he rarely lets his emotions show. At first he seems like the classic "honorable killer" type so common in the genre, but that's only how he acts. At heart he is as broken as anyone else. He's a predator, looking to sate his own desires as efficiently as possible and using the twisted language of contracts and collateral to perverse ends.

The tone of the film wavers between comic and terrifying, and though the story ends in some fairly extreme territory, it gets there in a low key, self-aware fashion. Friedkin doesn't overload the picture with half-baked Southern gothic atmosphere or an excess of stylistic flourishes; when he does throw in a perverse touch or two (including a macabre use of the song "Strokin'"), it's spice instead of an overpowering flavor. The entire cast is very well-chosen, from the quiet and intense Temple to the gloriously deadpan Church.

This is, by its nature, not a film that everyone will be able to enjoy. The climax is brutal not in the traditional way these stories usually end, but in a more intimate and uncomfortable fashion, never completely allowing for us to detach from it or view the violence and sexual exploitation ironically. It's not quite a realistic film, but it is an honest one. It means to transgress, and on that level it sure as Hell succeeds.

Screenplay by Tracy Letts, based on his play
Directed by William Friedkin

Grade: A-

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