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 * * * *

William Friedkin Talks About ‘Killer Joe’ at Landmark Theatres

Killer Joe movie poster

Oscar winning director William Friedkin made a special appearance at Landmark Theatres in West Los Angeles on August 3, 2012 to talk about his film “Killer Joe.” He appeared in front of a sold-out audience who had just finished watching it, and Friedkin ended up paraphrasing a review from the Los Angeles Times by saying, “Welcome to the abyss!”

This remark was in reference to the fact that “Killer Joe” has already earned a bit of notoriety after receiving an NC-17 rating from the MPAA for what they described as “graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality.”

At the start of this Q&A, Friedkin went over the three things a director needs to consider before they begin working on a project:

  1. Choose the material you want to do. Friedkin said this is very important as you will have to “live with it for a year.”
  2. Cast the film with the right actors. Friedkin said if anything goes wrong with the movie, it won’t matter how good the cast is because odds are the director has chosen the wrong actors for it.
  3. You need to create an atmosphere where the actors are comfortable enough to do the work. Friedkin remarked this is 75% of what a director does, and that the remaining 25% has the same person figuring out how to put their movie together.

When it came to casting “Killer Joe,” Friedkin said he went to actors Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church first as he was familiar with their work. These days, Friedkin says he continues to watch “old movies” as they continue to inspire him, and he doesn’t watch new movies much.

Friedkin also admitted he has “never seen any of Matthew McConaughey’s films” before casting him here, and he originally wanted someone “more grubby” and with “a more evil look.” However, after watching McConaughey being interviewed by Charlie Rose where he was just being himself, he realized someone like McConaughey would be more interesting as opposed to what some would call a “more obvious choice.”

McConaughey, however, read and hated the script to “Killer Joe” and that he “wanted to take a bath with a wire brush” after reading it. Regardless, McConaughey read the script again because he couldn’t get it out of his head, and he told Friedkin he found it “absurd and hilarious in a dark way.”

Friedkin also admitted he knew nothing about Juno Temple before casting her as Dottie. He was originally going to go with one of three beautiful actresses for this role, but he ended up watching an audition tape Temple put together in which she read the script along with her 10-year old brother who played the part of Joe, the cold blooded cop and contract killer played by McConaughey. Friedkin said he loved what he saw but that he was worried about her “thick British accent.” He ended up asking the cast to tell Temple when she was speaking in a way which didn’t sound like she was from Texas. From what we saw onscreen, the cast helped Temple out big time.

In talking about Gina Gershon (the mention of her name got the audience to applaud loudly), Friedkin said she was not his first choice for the role of Sharla. When it came to casting this particular role, Friedkin said he saved this question for last when interviewing prospective actresses, “Can you handle the sex and violence that is presented in this script?” It should go without saying Gershon could, and Friedkin described her as being “courageous” in playing Sharla. She is asked to portray some of the hardest things any actor is asked to do, and I don’t just mean the scene involving her and that piece of fried chicken.

“Killer Joe” marks the second film Friedkin has made from a play written by Tracy Letts whose “Bug” he turned into a film back in 2006. Friedkin said he and Letts “share the same worldview” as they both “see the absurdity of the many facets in life.” Their projects, as Friedkin sees it, deal with people “stuck in their realities and willing to do anything to get out of them,” and that neither of them is “fond of violence.”

Still, Friedkin said he did not expect the NC-17 rating the MPAA gave “Killer Joe,” but he thinks it is somewhat correct as he was not targeting young teenagers for this movie as they are more impressionable. Both he and LD Entertainment, which is distributing the film, fought the MPAA over the rating, and in trying to get it down to an R, they ended up cutting not scenes but instead frames of footage. This, however, was not enough, so Friedkin and LD Entertainment ended up appealing the decision. Friedkin joked how they “narrowly” lost the appeal (13 to nothing) and that he felt he “had to destroy the movie in order to save it.” But after all the fights he had over movies like “The Exorcist,” Friedkin declared he is “too old to get down on my knees and change the picture” for them.

When asked what the tone on set was, Friedkin described it as “light” because he and the actors already knew what was in the script. Friedkin also said he only does “one or two takes these days” when making a movie as opposed to the “15 or 20” he did when he was younger and “praying for miracles.” These days, he looks for spontaneity in his actors, and he finds the first take they give him is often the “most spontaneous” of all.

Whatever you end up thinking about “Killer Joe,” it is clear Friedkin is still a masterful filmmaker who has not lost his touch. The characters may be beyond redemption, but he is quick to point out we are all sinners, and this is an inescapably true fact. After all these years, Friedkin continues to challenge his audience, and we should be thankful for this in a time where most filmmakers choose to play it safe and to their own detriment.

Juno Temple on Getting Seriously Greedy in ‘The Brass Teapot’

Juno Temple in The Brass Teapot

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place in 2013.

The wonderful Juno Temple has left an indelible impression in movies like “Atonement,” the controversial “Killer Joe,” and as Selina Kyle’s BFF in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Now she gets to move up to a starring role in Ramaa Mosley’s “The Brass Teapot” in which she plays the happily married Alice. She and her husband John (Michael Angarano) are madly in love with each other but also seriously broke, and she is desperately looking for a job but is constantly turned down for other applicants who have more experience, usually in the form of a master’s degree. But one day she discovers a beautiful brass teapot at an antiques store which ends up spewing out money whenever she hurts herself, and from there Alice does everything she can to generate all the money she and her husband could ever need.

I got to catch up with Temple during a roundtable interview at “The Brass Teapot’s” press conference which was held at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills. She described Alice as being a “confused creature” because while she is not doing well financially, she does have a wonderful husband to lean on during tough times. Temple talked about the similarities and differences between her and Alice and how they each came to inform the way she played this character.

Juno Temple: It’s interesting for me because she’s someone that I find myself very different from, but that’s the challenge isn’t it? That’s the joy of being an actress. At the beginning she can’t see what is in front of her. She just can’t open her eyes and see that actually, in the grand scheme of the universe, she’s bloody lucky. She’s very ambitious and she expects a lot more for herself, and she’s frustrated that she is not where she thinks she should be at. So, her ego is kind of hurt and she’s almost embarrassed to be who she is which I understand, but it’s almost like c’mon, look at this amazing husband you have! Look at this person who adores you, and people can only dream of people that look at you that way sometimes.

Now once the brass teapot, which Temple described as being “magical, mythical and a devil,” comes into the picture, Alice undergoes a major switch as she and her husband acquire a wealth which has long been denied to them. She becomes insatiably greedy as they stand to make so much money through the pain and misery they willfully inflict on themselves and each other. As Temple continued to talk, I really came to admire the objectivity she had about Alice and how the character fits into the overall story.

JT: It’s interesting because she almost kind of deserves to go through what you go through to open her eyes to reality a little bit because I think she’s being a bit lazy with the teapot. The whole joy of booking a job as an actress, auditioning and then coming back and maybe doing a screen test and then actually getting cast and then getting to shoot the same for real, is you earn it. You earn that moment and it’s joyous. With Alice, she’s getting in a muddle that she thinks that this money is hers, but actually it’s the teapot’s and it’s feeding off some really, really important emotional nasty shit that is inside of this couple and giving them money. But actually, it’s destroying these people and give them what they think is awesome and useful and makes life like a good thing like a big house, posh dresses, nice dresses, etc. In the end, she really takes it too far.

The other great thing about Alice as a character is she does have an arc. In acting classes, teachers tell their students to map out the journey the character they are playing has in a play or script. Each character starts off at a certain point and ends becoming a different kind of person at the conclusion, and as an actor you need understand where your character is going from start to finish. This way it becomes not about the end result but more about the journey you take when you finally come to play your character on stage or screen. Temple took the time to describe the journey Alice has in “The Brass Teapot” and of where it eventually leads her to.

JT: I like the arc that she has because she really does learn about herself. It’s almost like she grows up from being a child to a grown-up, and I think it’s ultimately a story about love and about someone really, really loving someone else and helping someone through this crazy addiction, and love kind of conquering everything, I guess.

Speaking of addiction, Temple did quite a bit of research into drug addiction as she felt Alice was essentially an addict herself. The teapot of the movie’s title is an object of greed as well as a narcotic of the most inviting kind. Once it has a grasp on Alice, it almost completely consumes her and her husband in the process.

JT: What I learned about it was that you cannot control it. Your body becomes completely dependent on it that it almost hurts to get rid of it. So that was a really interesting thing for me of it almost being a painful process to sever the tie between her and the teapot. But the tie between her and her husband wasn’t as painful. Drug addiction destroys a lot of relationships, and sometimes it can create new relationships when people get it out of your lives. That was a major research thing for me and a major thought behind it.

But while “The Brass Teapot” deals with the dangers of an addiction, Temple is quick to stress the movie is really a comedy with a lot of humor. It’s a fable at its heart of how money can change you, but it can’t make you happy all the time. Temple is a joy to watch throughout as she takes Alice from being a frustrated and unemployed young woman to an endlessly greedy human being willing to do anything to keep those dollar bills flying in.

As the interview came to an end, she shared with us what keeps her going as an actress.

JT: We’re all in this business because we love it, because we’re passionate about it. If it’s a 20-hour day, tomorrow could be another one, but guess what? There’s a weekend coming. I think you’re in it for the right decisions if you’re willing to do a 20-hour day, and if you need a few extra tears are just going to ask them to wait for 15 minutes. I definitely want to be at giving actress and that’s something I really, really, really treasure.

CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT THE EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW I DID WITH THE DIRECTOR OF “THE BRASS TEAPOT,” RAMAA MOSLEY, WHICH I DID FOR WE GOT THIS COVERED.

Daniel Radcliffe on the Young Actor who Played Him in ‘Horns’

Horns movie poster

The “Horns” press conference held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California proved to be a lot of fun as stars Daniel Radcliffe, Juno Temple and writer Joe Hill, whose book the movie is based on, shared great memories about the making of this dark fantasy. Radcliffe plays Ig Perrish, a young man madly in love with Merrin Williams (Temple) and who will do anything for her. But as the movie opens, we discover Merrin was brutally murdered, and everyone thinks Ig was the one who killed her.

In addition to scenes where we see Ig and Merrin being intimate with one another, we also get to see a flashback where these two lovers first met. This resulted in two younger actors being hired to play these characters: Mitchell Kummen as Ig and Sabrina Carpenter as Merrin, and both look a lot like Radcliffe and Temple. While watching this sequence, I started thinking of the movie “Contact” in which Jodie Foster plays Eleanor Arroway and Jena Malone plays the same character as a young girl. In her commentary track on the “Contact,” Foster said the following:

“I always love watching actors play me, and actually it’s always the reverse; whenever you hire a child actor to play the adult actor, you just ask the adult actor to copy the kid. That’s certainly what Tom Hanks did in ‘Forest Gump,’ and that’s what I tried to do a little bit in this movie.”

That remark stayed with me long after the first time I heard it, and I wondered if Radcliffe or Temple had the same experience with the actors playing the younger versions of themselves in “Horns.” I asked Radcliffe about that, and his answer led to one of the funniest moments of the day.

Daniel Radcliffe: That’s interesting because we didn’t really see a huge amount of what the kids were doing. I was often, when they would be doing stuff, getting made up or de-made up or something would be going on so they would try and time it like that, so I didn’t really get to see a lot of what they were doing. I got to spend quite a lot of time particularly with Mitchell on the movie, and it was funny because Sabrina lives in L.A. now and she’s 13 going on 21. She’s incredibly mature and well above her years, and Mitchell is like I was when I was like 13. He’s a kid from Winnipeg, and he’s like a kid and he’s incredibly sweet. He’s awesome and I just like the fact that… Obviously, Mitch is blond naturally and he’s got much fairer hair than I do, and they dyed his hair on the first day. He went back to his hotel in Vancouver and nobody knew what he was doing, and then one of the girls just happened to say, ‘Oh you look like Harry Potter.’ That just made his day. He was so happy.

So, while Radcliffe didn’t necessarily take anything specifically from Kummen’s performance, he did illustrate how difficult it can be for casting directors to find an actor to play him as a younger person. Still, both Radcliffe and Kummen took the same character and made it their own in this movie. Thanks to their performances, we succeeded in getting the best of both worlds in “Horns.”