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.

‘The Grey’ Has Liam Neeson Battling More Than Wolves

The Grey movie poster

I was stunned at just how powerful “The Grey” was. Not that I was expecting it to be bad, but I was unprepared for how deep it was on an emotional level. On the surface, it looks like your average action movie crossed with an animal attack movie as the antagonists being a pack of bloodthirsty wolves. But as “The Grey” goes on, it becomes less about the wolves and more about man’s inner struggle. The wolves are really just serve as a metaphor for the beast inside of us which threatens to tear us apart.

Liam Neeson stars as John Ottway, a man who works at an oil drilling platform out in Alaska. John, however, is not an oil worker, but instead a hunter who shoots the wolves which threaten the workers. He also keeps having visions of his wife, Ana, (Anne Openshaw) and of them cuddling in bed together, and it is not clear whether she died or if she left him before he came out to one of the coldest places on Earth. What we do know is John is pretty despondent about his current situation, and he’s not sure if he wants to go on living.

All of this contemplation comes to a sudden halt when the plane he and the workers are traveling back home on suffers a serious malfunction and crashes in the most frigid and coldest place in all of Alaska. Director Joe Carnahan directs this crash sequence for maximum effect, and he keeps you inside the plane at all times which makes it all the more terrifying to watch. Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” may have contained the most harrowing plane crash of any 2012 movie, but the one in “The Grey” is just as unnerving to witness.

John and the survivors gather supplies and make a fire in the hopes they will be rescued, but they are soon met by a foe deadlier than the subzero temperatures: wolves. They come at the men in packs and rip them apart mercilessly, and those left over are forced to escape the crash site and make their way towards the trees in the hopes of losing the wolves and making it back to civilization in one piece. It doesn’t take long to see how John being with them is a good thing as he knows how wolves think and act, and he understands that these animals feed off of our fear of them. John informs the men it doesn’t matter if they have harmed the wolves or not because they are in their territory and not the least bit welcome in it.

Carnahan, ever since his directorial debut with “Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane,” has been a kick ass director who fills his films with an energy both kinetic and rough. His movies are never filled with pretty boys and girls, but with working class people who have been through a rough and tumble life which has given them only so much comfort. As a result, these characters feel relatable and are inhabited by a strong group of actors who are not afraid to look less than glamorous as them.

Along with his director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi, Carnahan captures the brutally cold landscape of Alaska in a way which makes you want to wear layers of clothing and a parka even if you’re watching “The Grey” from the comfort of your own home. It should also be noted that the snowstorms seen here are not CGI creations, and the cast and crew did in fact shoot this movie out in British Columbia where the temperatures got as low as -40 degrees Celsius. Give them all points for sheer bravery!

Now I know a lot of animal lovers out there who are boycotting “The Grey” for all it’s worth due to its presentation of wolves being these ferociously evil monsters, but I doubt this movie is meant to be an accurate depiction of these animals. It’s not like you’re going into it expecting a National Geographic special, but if you are, why? The wolves and how they tear away at human flesh is clearly exaggerated for effect, and they are presented as bloodthirsty killers which I doubt they are in real life.

But the more you get into “The Grey,” the more you realize it’s really not about man versus wolf but about man’s conflict with himself. As these men make their way through unforgiving blizzards and up to a higher elevation which their bodies are not prepared to handle, they discuss the existence of God and if there was ever one to begin with. This movie is not out to offer any definitive answer to this question, but examination of this issue creates a moral conundrum for the characters which is fascinating to watch, and it brings the movie to a whole other level I didn’t expect it to go to.

It also helps that Carnahan has a great supporting cast of actors like James Badge Dale, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie and Joe Anderson to work with as they all do a great job of bringing these characters to life. I especially have to single out Grillo who plays the arrogant hard ass Diaz. This character is the kind you want to see die painfully in a movie like this as he is like Hudson from “Aliens,” and excruciating pain in the ass, but Grillo makes Diaz into much more than that, and his character’s fate is a very sobering one to witness.

You have got to hand it to Neeson though as he brings a tremendous gravity to each film he’s in. Neeson has always been a riveting actor to watch, and he sells you on the knowledge his character has of wolves in a way few others can. If it were anyone else in this role, things might not seem as believable, but Neeson is the kind of guy who looks like he’s been through a lot in life (and he has), and you need an actor like him in a movie like this.

“The Grey” also has an emotionally powerful film score by Marc Streitenfeld. He has been Ridley Scott’s composer of choice for several of his movies, and yet he somehow got some time off to compose something for Carnahan. I even detected strands of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 in Streitenfeld’s score, and that is a piece of music as beautiful as it is sad (Peter Weir used it to great effect in “Fearless”). I had no idea Streitenfeld was going to come up with music this moving, and this says a lot about his talent.

“The Grey” doesn’t reinvent cinema as we know it, but it does take familiar elements and creates a movie going experience I didn’t expect to be taken on. While many may be bummed out by the film’s ending, I feel it is a perfect one for a movie like this. This is not a story which requires a heavy-duty action sequence to conclude it, and it’s really better for it as a result (be sure to stay through the end credits though). Those involved in its making were not out to give us a simple action movie, but instead a character driven one, and we should give them our thanks for taking it in this particular direction. Any other filmmaker would have been content to give us something which seemed like business as usual, but Carnahan was not out to do that. Thanks goodness for that.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Risen

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The story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection has been told countless times, but “Risen” looks to tell it from a different perspective. This movie follows powerful the Roman Centurion Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) as he is ordered by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to investigate the disappearance of Yeshua’s (a.k.a. Jesus of Nazareth) body which has vanished from its resting place. What results is a motion picture which proves to be anti-climactic more than anything else, and this is regardless of the fact it is better produced than other faith-based films out there today.

Things start out with Clavius leading his troops out into battle in a fight scene which looks like something out of “300.” Then we see him as he helps to close off Yeshua’s final resting place which is sealed off with an enormous stone wall. Somehow this wall is breached and Clavius is left with his aide Lucius (Tom Felton) to figure out who absconded with Yeshua’s body, and the answer will forever change what he has been led to believe.

“Risen” was directed by Kevin Reynolds who may be best known for directing “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and the infamous “Waterworld” with his friend and, at times, worst enemy Kevin Costner. He approaches this movie as a detective story as we watch Clavius interrogate many people about who might have made off with Yeshua’s body when the guards were not looking. This is where things are at their most interesting as it seems like Reynolds is testing us in regards to what we have been taught to believe about Jesus Christ among other things. Witnesses say one thing, but we are skeptical as to what we should accept as truth.

But then Clavius discovers Yeshua has somehow come back to the land of the living, and this is where the movie fell apart. Perhaps I should mention “Risen” starts with Clavius roaming the barren landscape, having been deeply affected by an experience we have yet to see him discover for himself. As a result, any tension or suspense this movie hoped to offer its audience is thrown out the window because we already have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen.

Dramas of any kind suffer tremendously when conflict is absent, and “Risen” quickly renders any potential conflict as null even when the movie could have benefited from more of it. Clavius’ association with the Roman Army quickly becomes non-existent when he sees with his own eyes how Yeshua has somehow come back from the dead. His loyal aide Lucius (Tom “Draco Malfoy” Felton) sees him as a betrayer of the Romans, but any confrontation that could come between the two of them is rendered moot in no time at all. By the time the movie reaches its conclusion, I couldn’t help but wonder what Reynolds was trying to get across. Was it belief helps you overcome being a Roman Centurion who helped pin Christ to the crucifix and then leave all those years of training behind upon discovering Christ has been resurrected? Look, I’m a big believer of anything being possible, but Clavius’ sudden conversion feels very far-fetched.

Fiennes is a fine actor (no pun intended) and he does give Clavius a stoicism which would make the common criminal buckle under an especially intense interrogation. At the same time, he makes Clavius a little too stoic to where his face seems far more frozen than it has any right to be. Clavius is supposed to be a very serious dude, but some moments of levity could have helped to at least remind audiences that Fiennes’ range as an actor is much broader than is presented here.

I do, however, have to give credit to Cliff Curtis for giving us a powerfully mesmerizing interpretation of Yeshua/Jesus of Nazareth. Whenever he appears on screen, the actor exudes a sereneness and calm which is not as easy to pull off as he makes it look. This is the same actor who played FBI Deputy Director Miguel Bowman in “Live Free or Die Hard,” and here he digs into this role internally to where you are desperate to follow him no matter where he goes. His performance makes this movie more watchable than it would have been otherwise.

Aside from that, “Risen” is beautiful to look at thanks to director of photography Lorenzo Senatore, but there’s not much about the movie to recommend. The story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has been told in more compelling ways than what is presented here. But being this is a Kevin Reynolds movie, it won’t matter what audiences think of it because Kevin Costner will watch it and say he could have made it better.

* * out of * * * *

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