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Griffith Maloney [Celluloid 06.26.12] comedy thriller crime



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Killer Joe is a deep fried, batter dipped texas murder movie. The weak script and confusing direction ruin this rather solidly acted and shot film. An absence of clarity causes it to swing between goofy and hardboiled atmospheres leaving the audience emotional confused. You’re probably better off leaving this regional delicacy alone.


Thematically Killer Joe is about greed even if it can’t commit to being funny about it or being serious. You can see the desire of each character oozing out of their mouths with every word they utter. Here are a bunch of trailer trash texans who never got their fair share of anything. Hell, they probably never got a share in the first place. The catalyst for the impending disaster is the thing they want above all else, money. Chris Smith, the wayward son played by Emile Hirsch, owes quite a bit of money to a local mobster and knows that his life is in danger if he doesn’t pay up. Luckily dear old mom has a life insurance policy and the family doesn’t like her anyway. So Chris partners up with his dumb-as-rocks dad Ansel, played by Thomas Haden Church and like an inexorable slide towards a sinkhole they plot a murder. They posses enough self awareness to know that they’re too dumb to kill someone and not get caught so they do what every small town hick would do, they hire a contract killer. Then, as we might expect, everything goes wrong.

On the surface this movie has a heck of a pedigree. Tracy Letts wrote the screenplay, adapting his successful stage production to the screen. Letts won the Pulitzer Prize for his broadway smash August Osage County. Then you have academy award winning director William Friedkin, best known for The Exorcist and The French Connection. Add an interesting cast and a simple, stylish murder plot and I’m starting to think that this could be really great. Unfortunately a bunch of strong disparate elements don’t always come together effectively and the story of Killer Joe is undermined by its confused tone. The down to earth visual aesthetic just doesn’t mesh with the goofy humor of the performances or the upsetting violence and sexual deviancy of the writing.

Killer Joe is a good looking murder movie and the realistic style helps to emphasize the serious parts of the script. Caleb Deschanel handles the cinematography and he manages to capture the grease and dust of the white trash texas slums with almost joyful accuracy. Darrin Navarro’s editing also helps to enforce some of the gritty realism of the film. His cutting of violence and chase scenes are especially strong. The film is a pleasure to watch and I only wish we could’ve had more variety in our locales in order to take advantage of this. Unfortunately we spend most of the movie stuck in the Smith’s beat up trailer home.

This is part of the problem of adapting stage plays to the screen. You usually end up with one room dramas. In A Street Car Named Desire that might work, the cramped flat of the set reflects the trapped nature of the characters. In Killer Joe it just gets in the way. Chris and his family are trapped by their circumstances, you can see it in every gesture. We don’t need to be confined to the inside of their trailer for most of the movie to understand that. Friedkin tries to alleviate this a little by bringing us to the police station and the Pizza shop where Sharla works but we’re stuck in the tiny trailer far to often and the limited camera angles become tiring.

One room drams usually rely on the strength of the actors to carry them and the performances in Killer Joe are enjoyable if uneven. The old guard far outstrip the younger actors, Church, McConaughey and Gershon steal the light from Emile Hirsch and Juno Temple in almost every scene. Church is particularly noteworthy in portraying Ansel Smith, a man who knows he’s the dumbest guy in the room and is at the same time accepting of that fact and tired of getting walked all over. It’s a shame that so much of this acting strength is squandered in the strange tonal shifts of the film. The actors have to pinball back and forth between humor and pathos so much it makes their eyes spin. The audience is so unsure of what this movie wants to do we end up spending a lot of time unsure of which leg to stand on or just staring at Mr. McConaughey’s bizarre performance as Joe Cooper.

In most of his larger roles Matthew McConaughey possess a strange otherworldly characteristic. It’s hard to pin down but its one of the reasons he’s an appealing leading man. It’s as if he was plucked from a different movie and dropped into the one you’re watching. He tends to play every scene likes he’s talking to people who aren’t there. This can utterly cripple a movie as it does in Richard Linklater’s recent film Bernie, where clips of him as the town sheriff seem like misplaced footage from a soap opera. In Killer Joe however it works pretty well, mainly because the character of Killer Joe Cooper is supposed to be so different, so alien, to the trailer park protagonists that he might as well be from another planet. He certainly does draw the eye though, filling each scene with a palpable menace. This isn’t enough to carry the whole film and the initial threat of Joe’s character dims in the face of the movies conflicting tenor.

Joe is established as the menacing antagonist of the film but his actions/reactions are written as both horrifying and amusing and it ruins the tone of the character and the movie. Nowhere is this more apparent than In the pivotal dinner scene, where Joe beats the living daylights out of Charla and then proceeds to sexually humiliate her with a wing of deep fried chicken. As this happens he’s telling the family how things are going to be from now on, like some sick Lynchian father figure. This could be a shocking and frightening sequence if we hadn’t seen Joe in such a funny light at different points of the movie. Laughing at absurd characters makes them less frightening. The fact that the audience doesn’t take Joe seriously makes this scene come off as surreal performance art instead of a meaningful display of brutality. As if we just wandered into a scene from Salo that was inexplicably in the middle of our black comedy murder movie.

So if that’s the big NC-17 shocker scene, the one that Friedkin refused to cut in order to get a lower rating, what’s with the other junk? There’s a lot unnecessary frontal nudity on both Gershon and Temple’s part and its almost exclusively used to setup a laugh. I can’t think of any other film that flirted with the NC-17 rating for the sake of humor. It seems almost like Letts and Friedkin knew they would be stuck with the rating and just said fuck it lets have some fun. Which would be fine, except I’m supposed to be taking parts of the film seriously, which is hard when you’re just flashing ladies muffs for giggles.

This confusing lack of clarity in both the writing and the directing is the fatal blow for Killer Joe. If it’s going to be a comedy then we need more laughs. If its going to be a Cinéma vérité style crime story then tone down the caricatures. It its going to be a stylish violence movie then it needs more style. A murder plotting session at the strip club is played for laughs, then an uncomfortable interaction between Joe and Dottie puts us on edge. All this genre confusion causes the piece to fall apart in the last twenty minutes, leaving the audience unsure of what kind of film their watching and judging by the oddly paced acting I’m not sure the performers know either. Some of Killer Joe is funny, some of it is sad, some is scary but none of it seems to stick together in a meaningful way. You might laugh at all these poor idiots, you might be scared of them but you won’t end up giving a damn about their fate. Which in the end makes this movie a little bit sad. It’s a greasy regret instead of a indulgent treat.

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