Friday, July 27, 2012

Killer Joe

Chicken Lickin' Fairy Tales And Killer Innocence In TX

Juno Temple as Dottie and Matthew McConaughey as Joe in William Friedkin's "Killer Joe". 
Millennium Entertainment


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, July 27, 2012

With comedy pitched darker than the hat Matthew McConaughey wears in the photo above, William Friedkin's drama "Killer Joe", a guilty pleasure written by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts and based on the true story of a murderous Florida family, is one heck of a hit to the solar plexus.  Funny, fantastical and far more intelligent than it may suggest, "Killer Joe" is a tough, suspenseful dysfunctional family sitcom without a laugh track.  The bloody, visceral NC-17-rated film opened today in select cities, and it is a wonderfully sleazy spectacle.

Mr. McConaughey gives one of the very best performances of his career as the title character, a West Dallas police officer who moonlights as a hitman.  Pay Joe Cooper and he'll get the job done.  Cool, calm and exacting, Joe is mellower than the Marlboro Man.  Law and order for Joe?  Order is his middle name.  Law has long been written off.  Joe is contracted to end the life of an abusive mother we barely glimpse who tried killing her daughter Dottie (Juno Temple) and is despised by her son Chris (Emile Hirsch, superbly white-trashy here), up to his neck in debt to a petty, ruthless gangster.  Chris's similarly trashy dad (a deadpan Thomas Haden Church) and his son want the $50,000 life insurance policy from the dead body of Chris's mother to be shared three-ways with Sharla (Gina Gershon), Ansel's new wife, with $25,000 of the policy to be paid to Joe in cold hard cash.

"Killer Joe" has a distinct and humorous voice.  As written by Mr. Letts and based on his play, it is sharply witty, ironic and brimming with intellect and savvy.  Each of the characters has a playing card held behind their back, hoping to play one last devastating hand.   The physiology of the players is especially fascinating.  We see a boot, a black leather glove and we know instantly that we feel and smell Joe before we see him.  Each player makes a somewhat unforgettable entrance, particularly Sharla, and their exits in Mr. Friedkin's riveting theatrical experience are equally memorable.  It's easy to laugh uncomfortably (and I did) at this visceral, occasionally intense film but one quickly realizes that "Killer Joe", a wicked, amoral tale about a twisted, scheming family, isn't being played for laughs.  The actors are having fun but it's not the kind of gleeful fun you'd have at an amusement park.  It's more like an exhilarating, liberating yet disquieting amoral romp.

Each character is authentically drawn and very smart, and the film looks at the bizarre underbelly of the American Dream as seen through the eyes of a thoroughly bankrupt group of human beings.  Mr. Friedkin and Mr. Letts see clear zones of humanity in each of them however, which makes them all the more dangerous and unpredictable.  Joe is an unorthodox creature, and in his murderous way he is extraordinarily formal and meticulous as well as courteous and charming.  To add further layers of unease the director uses the safety of the home and commonplace objects in it as absolutely lethal weapons, making "Killer Joe" increasingly unsettling, especially in its second hour. 

For his part Mr. McConaughey trades in the kind of surfer sex appeal he customarily utilized in romantic comedies and reaches here for something deeper, primal and powerful.  He oozes suspense in his words, silences and even his walk.  There are two scenes at the dinner table in "Killer Joe" that show aspects of Joe and by extension Mr. McConaughey's remarkable Oscar nominee-worthy work.  The latter dinner scene will undoubtedly be a talking point for audiences, but one thing is clear: with this performance and his work in "Bernie", "Magic Mike" and two other films arriving this year including Lee Daniels' drama "The Paperboy" Mr. McConaughey is having the year of his life on the big screen.  Like Brad Pitt he has broken out of the pretty boy mold but overnight.  Last year's "The Lincoln Lawyer" was an early sign of this, although in far earlier films like "A Time To Kill", "Dazed And Confused" and "Lone Star" there was enough on display to confirm that the Texas-born actor was more than just a pretty face.

Mr. Friedkin has specialized in examining the blurry lines of ethics, sanctity and morality ("The French Connection", "The Exorcist", "To Live And Die In L.A.") and as in those efforts -- notably "To Live And Die" -- there's a lurid and indistinct line between authority and the macabre.  There are several violations of protocol in "Killer Joe" that don't belong in a family, and there are other times that you think these on-the-surface "podunk" characters swallowed a book of Shakespeare or something in between eating grits and pizza.  This fractured trailer park family that takes Joe in (or is it the other way around?) is a family of pigs.  They are raw animals wallowing in the sewage of the illicit.  Salad isn't on their dinner menu, and if it were it wouldn't be for long.  This whack-a-doodle bunch doesn't miss a beat, and when their circumstances change abruptly it isn't surprising as much as it is shocking.

How far off the beam are these creatures, and would we ever do what they do in "Killer Joe"?  Keep in mind that in Florida -- and I can hear people uttering Florida jokes right now -- there was actually a family like this.

Filmed on the outskirts of New Orleans suburbs to stand in for Texas, "Killer Joe" has a mustiness and depravity that are crude, jarring and impolite but there's nothing dirty about what is at heart a love story of lonely souls looking for connection and peace.  There's a fairy tale quality and innocence to the film that often gets shattered.  As shot so proficiently by Caleb Deschanel, "Killer Joe" has a disarming way that yields to a vivid, disturbing atmosphere percolating with tension. 

Ms. Temple ("The Dark Knight Rises", "Dirty Girl") is great as the teenage Dottie, whose kittenish precociousness meets up with the unfulfilled and regimented Joe.  Mr. McConaughey and Ms. Temple are especially good together on the big screen, with a smoldering chemistry in one scene.  In other scenes I was reminded of the misguided togetherness of Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis's characters in "Natural Born Killers".  Ms. Gershon, memorable in "Showgirls", "Bound" and "The Insider", does some of her best work to date as Sharla, a key character in "Killer Joe".  Sharla is a voice of reason despite all that swirls around her.   

I can't say that I loved "Killer Joe" but I loved the chances it took.  Every frame of it is fearless poetry.  Each moment penetrates.  The players wipe the chess pieces off the board without apology.  In Mr. Friedkin's Texas the mood is foul, the air is dank, and as sure as day follows night, something more outrageous waits around the corner in a film that will test your tolerance for food service.

Also with: Marc Macaulay, Julia Adams, Sean O'Hara.

"Killer Joe" is rated NC-17 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality.  Fasten your seat belts.  The film's running time is one hour and 43 minutes. 

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