Underseen Movie: ‘Killer Joe’ – The WTF Movie of 2011

WARNING: DO NOT EAT FRIED CHICKEN BEFORE OR WHILE WATCHING THIS MOVIE.

William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe” got my vote for the WTF movie of 2012. It wallows in the sheer depravity of its deliberately idiotic characters without apology, and it is one of the most darkly hilarious movies I have seen in some time. Seriously, I would put this film on a par with “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” and “Observe and Report” as they are equally fearless in the places they dare to take us. “Killer Joe” also marks the second collaboration between Friedkin and playwright Tracy Letts whose play “Bug” Friedkin previously adapted into a motion picture. With this film, neither is out to show the audience any mercy as they challenge them in a way most filmmakers don’t bother to these days, and it wears its NC-17 rating with pride.

The movie takes place in Texas and features some of the dumbest or, to be polite, the most dimwitted characters on the face of the earth. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is a drug dealer who is in debt to his suppliers by several thousand dollars, and his solution is to have someone murder his mother as she has a $50,000 insurance policy. His father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), shows only the slightest moral opposition to this plan as he divorced Chris’ mother a long time ago and has since gotten married to the conniving Sharla (Gina Gershon), and Chris already has one person in mind to carry out this cold-hearted assassination.

That person is Joe Copper (Matthew McConaughey), a police detective who works as a hired killer on the side. Now Joe demands an upfront payment of $25,000 for his services, but Chris and Ansel can only pay him after receiving the insurance payout. As a result, Joe ends up taking a retainer to make up for that: Ansel’s daughter and Chris’ sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). As with all crimes based on greed, all the careful preparation cannot keep these characters from falling into the nasty realm of disaster. But long before the movie’s end, you will agree they have all earned the fate they ever so thoughtlessly brought on themselves.

If this seems like an unusual movie for Oscar winning director Friedkin to make, it shouldn’t. Friedkin’s movies in general, with the exception of “The Exorcist,” have never contained characters easily deserving of redemption. “Killer Joe” will be seen by many as a bold motion picture of his, but his movies show he has never passed judgment on any of the characters inhabiting his movies. He is also a brilliant filmmaker as he surrounds himself with a cast of actors who don’t easily judge their characters either.

McConaughey has been on a roll ever since he gave up making those dopey romantic comedies for movies like “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” With “Killer Joe,” he ends up giving one of the bravest and boldest performances of his career as Joe Copper is as immoral as characters can get. We never learn why he decided to get into this line of work while being employed as an officer of the law, but it doesn’t matter. McConaughey gives us a mesmerizing portrait of a character who is more than aware of how evil he is, and he is not about to apologize for it.

The other actors like Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church deserve a lot of credit as they portray the dimwitted characters perfectly without ever just playing it for laughs. They play each character as being serious in what they say and do, and this makes us laugh uncontrollably at certain moments because we almost won’t believe how badly they screw things up. They also invest their characters with a history which shows on their faces and doesn’t need to be spelled out for the audience.

A special badge of courage, however, needs to go to Gina Gershon who plays Sharla as “Killer Joe” shows just how deep into a role she is willing to go. Her character thinks nothing of opening the front door without wearing anything from the waist down, and this is not to mention what McConaughey ends up making her do with a piece of fried chicken. Even as Sharla wears too much makeup to where her mascara runs down her face, making her look like the Joker from “The Dark Knight,” Gershon gives a truly fearless performance as someone who thinks she’s better than the people around her. But of course, Sharla finds out in the worst way possible that she is not.

The one person who really caught my eye though was Juno Temple who portrays the youngest child of the Smith family, Dottie. You may remember Temple as Selina Kyle’s street-smart friend from “The Dark Knight Rises,” and she makes Dottie a fascinating enigma. Her character is at times willfully innocent, seemingly naïve, but she actually becomes the only member of this trailer park family with anything resembling intelligence. Temple is utterly beguiling in “Killer Joe,” and I look forward to seeing more of her in the future.

“Killer Joe” was already earning infamy before its release with the MPAA giving it the dreaded NC-17. Did it earn this rating? Well, yes and no; this is certainly no movie to take your kids or impressionable teenagers to see. Then again, if “Killer Joe” were released by a major movie studio, it would have somehow gotten an R despite its content. Whatever you think this movie deserves the NC-17 rating or not, the hypocrisy of the MPAA remains maddening and never ending.

Friedkin has been leaving in the shadow of his most famous work for years as if no one would ever let him get past “The Exorcist,” “The French Connection” or even “Sorcerer” which is now being seen as the masterpiece it always was. The truth however is he has not lost his talent in setting up scenes which contain tremendous suspenseful impact. This is especially the case whenever McConaughey is onscreen because when he appears you know things are going to get really bad. Friedkin also is well served by his collaborators such as cinematographer Caleb Deschanel who finds a twisted beauty in such utter depravity, and composer Tyler Bates gives the most suspenseful and horrifying moments a strong atmospheric quality which makes the story all the more claustrophobic.

It’s hard to say where exactly “Killer Joe” ranks on William Friedkin’s long resume of work, but it is safe to say it is far more accomplished than his other works like “Deal of the Century,” “The Guardian” and “Jade.” With this film he gives willing audience members an experience they will not easily forget, and he directs Matthew McConaughey to one of the best and most explosive performances of his career. Those in the mood for the most disturbing of black comedies should not pass up “Killer Joe.” Just remember, it may be a while before you find yourself eating fried chicken again after you watch it.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Veronica Cartwright Talks About ‘The Right Stuff’ at New Beverly Cinema

The Right Stuff movie poster

Filmmaker Brian McQuery asked New Beverly Cinema to program it, and his wish came true on July 4, 2013 when the revival theater screened “The Right Stuff” in honor of its thirtieth anniversary. Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s non-fiction book on the Mercury Seven astronaut program and Chuck Yeager was not a box office success when it first came out, but it did find its audience on video, cable and Digital. Seeing it again on the big screen was a real treat, and the audience got an even bigger one when McQuery welcomed actress Veronica Cartwright to the stage.

Cartwright played Betty Grissom, wife to Gus Grissom who was the second American to fly into outer space. Gus’ flight, however, ended on a controversial note after he landed in the ocean and the hatch on his spacecraft suddenly exploded and came off. This caused the spacecraft to sink, and the whole incident left NASA feeling embarrassed. Gus was later found to be not at fault for what happened.

Cartwright had previously worked with Kaufman on his remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and he told her he had written the part of Betty Grissom with her in mind. Still, Cartwright had to convince to the movie’s producers she was the right person for the role, but there was one thing which threatened to derail her interview with them.

Veronica Cartwright: I had been in a car accident in 1981 where I broke my leg in 35 places. Then this interview came up and I was six months in a cast, and I had nine screws and an 8-inch plate in my ankle. I had just gotten out of my cast and my mother had to drive me to the interview, and I dressed in red, white and blue. I thought this was the appropriate thing to do. As I got up the stairs and I walked, Phil came out. Well I had a bit of a limp at this point so I thought, oh my god if he sees me limping… So, I went, “Hey Phil! What’s happening?” And I danced the whole length of the hallway.

Despite the shape her leg was in, Cartwright still got the part. In fact, she didn’t even tell Kaufman or any of the producers her leg was broken until after shooting wrapped. However, she did have to wear high heels for a scene three months after her leg came out of the cast which was anything but comfortable.

Cartwright’s character is of course based on a real person, but she admitted she never got to meet Betty Grissom before, during or after making the movie. This was due to a big lawsuit going on after Gus died aboard Apollo 1 which caught fire before it took off, and Betty was not in a good state of mind to assist with the production of “The Right Stuff.” As a result, Cartwright had to rely on other ways to get into character, and she talked about how she prepared to play Betty.

VC: We looked at the archival footage and we were all given backgrounds of where the characters were born and how they met their husbands and how they got involved in the whole space program. When you’re doing a real character, I think it’s a little scarier because you want to do that person justice. It’s not coming off of your own imagination. It’s coming off of reality so you have to be careful. I hope I justified her. I always write myself a biography so I know where I came from and stuff like that. Of course, a lot of that was supplied because of her being an actual person. If I know who the person is, just from however I created them, then the lines come like that because I have become that person. I believe you need to have enough background and stuff so that, say something improvisational comes up, you would act according to what your character would do. It’s become ingrained as part of your character. I do a lot of homework before I do something, and I always found that it works for me.

During filming, Cartwright said the actors hung out with the actors while the actresses hung out with the actresses. She remarked how they were “separate entities” as a result which in a weird way was what the movie was about. Everyone in the cast, however, became a close-knit group by the end of filming, and Cartwright pointed out how this showed in the big barbecue scene where their characters are given a huge banquet in Texas courtesy of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. The scene was actually shot at the Cow Palace in San Francisco with hundreds of extras, and she remembered the shooting of it quite vividly as the meat being barbecued was not as tasty as it looked.

VC: We were in the Cow Palace for five days and those sides of beef weren’t very pretty after five days. We kept hearing, “DO NOT EAT THE MEAT! DO NOT EAT THE MEAT!” Oh my gosh! They would bring in thousands of McDonald’s burgers. Bags of McDonald’s were handed out because they kept saying, “DO NOT EAT THE MEAT!” They would be over there with that blowtorch and putting that glaze all over the beef and it was disgusting. But it was a wonderful experience (filming that scene), it was really great.

In talking about Kaufman, Cartwright described him as a great, lovely person. Since “The Right Stuff” is such a big ensemble piece, everyone had major rehearsals to get the blocking right, but Kaufman did allow for improvisation. Cartwright also admitted the scene in the hotel where Betty gets upset with Gus because they were not invited to the White House after his space mission took a whole day to shoot.

The screenplay for “The Right Stuff” was to be written by William Goldman, but Goldman wanted to leave out the Chuck Yeager story and focus solely on the astronauts. Kaufman disagreed with this decision as he felt Yeager’s story was a very important part of the film because, even though he didn’t go into space, the future of space travel really began with him. Goldman ended up withdrawing from the film and Kaufman wrote the screenplay himself. Cartwright lauded his work.

VC: I thought the script was brilliant because the book is sort of like a train of thought and things that are said but not spoken out loud. What Phil did was he took that book and made all those thoughts reality. I think very rarely can books translate into the movies and the movies be as good as the books were, and in this case, he was right on.

The cinematographer for “The Right Stuff” was Caleb Deschanel who received an Oscar nomination for his work. He was also nominated for his work on the films “The Natural,” “Fly Away Home,” “The Patriot” and “The Passion of the Christ.” Of course, these days he is known as the father of Emily and Zooey Deschanel who have become successful actresses in their own right.

VC: He’s very meticulous. The lighting was amazing. He didn’t have standard lights. Everything had these big shrouds of silks over the top of them. The whole Cow Palace was lit and it would be on gimbles where they could just move the lighting, but it took hours to set up. It was pretty intense. And it’s so funny to see Zooey now because she was three-years old during the making of the movie, and Emily had just been born. Thirty years is a long time!

Actually, the most fascinating story Cartwright told that evening involved how Kaufman and his crew filmed the flying sequences. Until “Top Gun” came along, “The Right Stuff” had some of the best and most convincing aerial footage of any movie I had ever seen. So it was a big surprise when Cartwright revealed to us what kinds of planes and special effects were used to create those moments.

VC: When you see the planes going up and down, those were all Japanese models and they (the filmmakers) stood on the top of a very tall building and chucked them off (laughs). That was the CGI! They just sort of painted them and Phil said “oh my God it was incredible! We just go up on the top of the building and throw the plane off and see what happens!” So when you’re watching the movie tonight, you can figure out that it’s a little Japanese air model. It was hysterical!

Veronica Cartwright ended her Q&A with Brian McQuery by saying “The Right Stuff” was a wonderful movie and that she loved the sense of drama and comedy and how it was a wonderful blend of the two. Thirty years after its release, we couldn’t have agreed more. “The Right Stuff” remains one of the greatest movies to come out of the 1980s, and it has lost none of its power to excite and entertain those who watch it. Some movies don’t age well, but this one has.