Sunday, January 20, 2013

Pulped Fiction: William Friedkin's Killer Joe

There's no written rule on what makes the best film noir. But you could say that its enduring appeal isn't simply in watching the downward spiral of desperate characters. Its attraction also lies in sharing the horror of that trip down the road to perdition. For all of Fred McMurray's tough-guy assertions in Double Indemnity (1944), for instance, we develop some empathy for him when we see that he's essentially the sap that Barbara Stanwyck takes him for. In The Grifters (1990), when Anjelica Huston chooses the money over the life of her own son, we understand in our bones her primal need to make that choice (while getting the cold shakes from knowing the death rattle chill she will forever carry within her). The darkness in film noir always works best when we can first see the light that's being snuffed out. If we can't perceive something of ourselves in its doomed characters then the genre simply becomes an empty exercise in nastiness.

William Friedkin's Killer Joe (which recently came out on DVD) is a perfect example of that kind of emptiness. This particularly vicious noir, an adaptation of Tracy Letts's celebrated 1991 play, and elegantly shot by Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff, The Black Stallion), takes a particular glee in rubbing our nose in nastiness. (There are quite a few pretty good noirs that have a similar nasty and sadistic tinge, like Mike Figgis's 1990 Internal Affairs, but Killer Joe has no interest in psychological nuance and dramatic colour like Figgis's work which cleverly employs the theme of jealousy in Othello.) To compensate for the emotional distance Friedkin creates here, the director provides a hip and ironic comic tone that diffuses the power of the violence in the drama. Friedkin (who made his career with brutally basic entertainments like The French Connection and The Exorcist) adopts a clever pose instead, one that makes us feel superior to the people on the screen. In doing so, he invites us to enjoy the sadism when it gets predictably turned on them. Speaking as bluntly as the action itself: he makes them too dumb to live.

Killer Joe is your archetypal noir. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is a young drug dealer who lives in a trailer park in a small Texas town with his virginal younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple). When he finds himself in a considerable amount of debt to the local loan shark, he figures his only way out is to murder his mother to collect her $50,000 of insurance money. (His mother's boyfriend tells Chris, in a rather inexplicit plot point, that his sister would be the sole beneficiary of the cash.) Figuring Dottie would be generous enough to split the cash, Chris involves his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), his mother's ex-husband, into his criminal conspiracy. Ansel agrees to come on board as long as his current wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon), gets a cut of the cash. To accomplish the deed, Chris hires Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a police detective who is a contract killer in his spare time. When Chris ultimately can't fully meet Joe's fee, Joe proposes that Chris offer up Dottie as a 'retainer' until the insurance cash comes through. As in most noirs, nothing goes as planned and retribution becomes the story's point.

Emile Hirsch & Matthew McConaughey
In Killer Joe, though, Friedkin (who had already adapted Letts's 1996 play Bug) focuses on punishing the characters rather than bringing out anything in the way of motivation for their behaviour. For instance, Chris is in so much debt that in such a small community it's a wonder anyone would let him get that deep into their pockets. Given his penchant for losing, too, it makes even less sense that Ansel would confidently go along with the plan. There's a bit of business of family incest as well that is never fully explored and Dottie's character is no more than a retread of Tennessee Williams' Baby Doll. What Friedkin provides instead of compelling drama is a portrait of trailer park life no more incisive than an episode of The Jerry Springer Show. According to Killer Joe, you'd think these people deserve their fate because they represent what Friedkin and Letts see as the kind of American lowlife who buys tabloids and watch junk on television. They already judge these folks for their bad taste. (The first shot of Gina Gershon, who is made deliberately unattractive here, is her opening a trailer door with her naked crotch facing the camera. Is that what constitutes nuance for Friedkin?)

But if the principal characters are left redundantly unappealing, Joe Cooper is the picture's ace in the hole. While everyone else is encouraged to act up a storm, Matthew McConaughey settles in and anchors a riveting performance that is perfumed in quiet menace. Although his character makes about as much sense as anything else in the film (who knows why he's a contract killer, or even how he accomplishes this task without alerting his superiors?), McConaughey plays what amounts to a vibe with about as much gravity as an actor can bring. But maybe it's the character's lack of dimension that provides a certain strategy for the star. Early in his career, when McConaughey tried to be both a serious actor and a movie star, in movies as diverse as Lone Star (1996) and A Time to Kill (1996), he couldn't provide the emotional weight to carry them off. He came across as Paul Newman with the soul of a surfer dude. But in his later career, he's taken to concentrating his characteristic lightness into something that disguises a restless darkness lurking beneath. It's as if he's found a way to use his limited range as a foil to overshadow the unacknowledged depths of a character we would normally find superficial. As Joe Cooper, McConaughey peeks beneath the genial demeanor we've come to recognize in him and he now shows us the explosive energy it was holding back. (It's a shame this performance isn't in a better movie. One of his most dynamic moments comes at the expense of sexually humiliating Gina Gershon in an ugly scene staged so poorly that it upstages a thinking actor's work – it also earned the picture an NC-17 rating in the United States.)

Matthew McConaughey as Killer Joe

Perhaps what trips up Friedkin most in Killer Joe, besides his basic brutalism, is that he has no feeling for the pulpy material he's adapting. When Raymond Chandler once talked about writing detective novels, he spoke about choosing a particular vernacular that didn't pander to his audience, but instead would be in a language he knew his readers would understand. Friedkin, on the other hand, seems to feel that he's so much better and smarter than the material in Killer Joe that the film's language is deliberately mocking. So he doles out the brutality, but he can't risk identifying with the people on the screen acting it out. By condescending to the material in Killer Joe, Friedkin not only reveals the heart of a snob, he doesn't do full justice to the pulp in the fiction.

 – Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier is currently conducting a five-part lecture series called Woody Allen: Past and Present (with film clips) at the JCC Miles Nadal Centre in Toronto each Monday until February 11 from 7-9pm.

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