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 * * * *

Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ is Simply Brilliant

It was published back in 1868, but Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” remains one of the most timeless novels ever written. It has been made into a movie six times, been turned into several shows on television, was eventually adapted into a musical, and even an opera was created out of it. Taking this into account, it should be no surprise this particular piece of literature remains a popular one from one generation to the next.

Now we have the seventh adaptation of “Little Women,” and it comes to us courtesy of writer and director Greta Gerwig who is still riding high off of her success with “Lady Bird.” Is it better than Gilliam Armstrong’s 1994 cinematic adaptation which starred Winona Ruder? I don’t know, and at this point I don’t care because making such comparisons threatens to do a real disservice to both versions. All that matters is Gerwig has taken this classic novel and turned it into a motion picture which is uniquely her own. A story which has been read and told to others over the ages now feels fresh again, and it is one of the best films of 2019.

Alcott’s “Little Women” was originally published in two volumes, the first which dealt with March sisters’ (Jo, Mary, Beth and Amy) childhood in Massachusetts, and the second which followed them into their adult years. While previous versions have presenting the story in a linear fashion, Gerwig dares to tell the tale in a non-linear fashion as she has the present and past intertwining with one another. This has the result of giving the story and its characters more depth than was already there, and the emotions are more powerful as a result.

Now granted, this non-linear approach was a bit jarring for me because, at first, it was a little hard to figure out where things were taking place. But thanks to director of photography Yorick Le Saux who uses different strokes of light to differentiate the two parts, I did eventually gain a foothold on where things were going. The childhood sequences are painted in a beautiful set of hues which typically color our most nostalgic memories, and the adult scenes are illustrated with darker and more stark colors to remind us of how harsh the real world can be.

Looking back at Armstrong’s “Little Women,” it almost seemed fantastical in the way it portrayed the March family as if they had it made. Gerwig’s version reminds us of how they lived in poverty and were forced to fend for themselves while the patriarch (played by Bob Odenkirk) is away fighting as a soldier in the Civil War. But thanks to the wealthy Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), they have a friend who will help them during the toughest of times. Isn’t that great? You know, when the rich went out of their way to help out the poor?

“Little Women” features a bevy of fantastic performances from a gifted cast. Saoirse Ronan is ever so wonderful as Jo, the most free-spirited March sisters who is determined to become a writer and defy society’s expectations of her as a lady. Ronan inhabits this character in such a marvelous way to where her spirit proved to be infectious, and she makes you want to follow along with here from start to finish. She is so full of joy here, and you want to experience this joy with her.

Another key performance comes from Florence Pugh who plays the artistically inclined Amy March. Pugh already wowed us earlier this year in the deeply unnerving “Midsommar,” and here she gets to play this movie’s most complex character as Amy struggles to separate her expected duties as a woman from what her heart is telling her to do. Pugh does excellent work in portraying the conflict within Amy as her words express a surrender to what society expects of her even as her eyes show what her heart truly desires more than anything else.

It is also great to see Laura Dern here as the matriarch of the March family, Marmee. While she has done a lot of great work on television over the years, the recent movies Dern has appeared in like “Cold Pursuit” have made unforgivably poor use of her talent. Here, Gerwig gives her a platform to do some of her most memorable work on the silver screen in some time, and she makes the most of it. Dern even gives Marmee an extra layer of depth when she admits how her pleasant nature manages to hide how angry she is at the world around her.

The rest of the cast features actors you can never go wrong with. Meryl Streep is a joy as always, this time playing the far too high-minded Aunt March. Timothee Chalamet shows incredible range as he takes Theodore “Laurie” Laurence from a hopelessly naïve young man to a troubled soul whose broken heart can never be easily mended, and then he shows us the person who arrives on the other side of all that to tremendous effect. Emma Watson makes Margaret “May” March into a character who goes from having endless anxiety about her place in society to becoming a strong individual who comes to see what her heart desires most in life. And then there’s Tracy Letts who has appeared in what seems like every other movie this past year, and he plays Jo’s story editor Mr. Dashwood to great effect.

Gerwig’s “Little Women” is one of those films which had me completely absorbed and engrossed in its story and characters to where I never took my eyes off the screen. There is not a single false note to be found here as Gerwig shows off a sheer confidence as a director which makes clear how her previous successes behind the camera were no fluke. In taking one of the most classic novels ever written, one which has been adapted dozens upon dozens of times, she shows a mastery over the material to where it is impossible to think anyone else could have done as great a job as she has here.

Many will probably view “Little Women” as nothing more than a “chick flick,” but this rather shallow description does it no justice. Regardless of what your gender or sexual preference is, there is a lot of us in these unforgettable ladies. They yearn for better futures, get caught up in the innocence of their childhood to where they let their collective imaginations run wild, and they struggle with what a cruel world which expects only so much from them. Please do not try to convince me you cannot relate to these women go through because of who you think you are. Their struggles are not very different from our own, and this makes this particular adaptation so remarkable as we relate to them in inescapable ways. This is truly one of the best movies of 2019.

* * * * 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.

Tracy Letts Looks Back on ‘Bug’ at New Beverly Cinema

Tracy Letts photo

New Beverly Cinema concluded their month long tribute to Oscar winning filmmaker William Friedkin with a double feature of “Bug” and “Killer Joe,” movies which allowed him to escape the pressures of big budget filmmaking by going the indie route. Both were based on plays written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts who also adapted them to the big screen, and he was the guest of honor at the New Beverly for this final night of Friedkin. Following “Bug,” he participated in a Q&A with Brian J. Quinn, host of the Grindhouse Film Festival. Quinn’s first question was how Letts first came up with “Bug,” and Letts took us back in time to when the play was first conceived and of how Michael Shannon was involved.

Bug movie poster

“Where it came from is what I’m puzzling about myself right now,” Letts said. “I had written ‘Killer Joe’ in 91, it got produced in 93, and that production wound up going to the UK. The Gate Theatre in Notting Hill (where it was put up) asked us for another show. The group for ‘Killer Joe’ were interested in working again, so I wrote quickly and I wrote the role of Peter for Mike (Shannon). Mike had played Chris in my production of ‘Killer Joe’ and was such a great actor. We took it to the Gate Theatre and the play wasn’t worked out. It took a long time and a lot of productions for me to work out some of the problems with it, but Mike played Peter not only in the London production but in the subsequent production in Chicago where I continued to work on it. And then the play went to the Barrow Street Theatre in New York in 2005, and Mike had been with the play for a number of years at that point.”

“Bill Friedkin saw the play in New York and he called me out of the blue,” Letts continued. “I had never met him or spoken to him and I thought it was a prank actually, but he had seen the show. He actually said, ‘I don’t actually think this is a movie. I just wanted to tell you that I am a fan of your writing and I think it’s great.’ And he called the next day and said, ‘Maybe it is a movie. Why don’t you come out here to LA and talk to me’ So I flew to Los Angeles and I met Bill at his home for the first time. He said, ‘I think it is a film. The more I think about it, it seems very cinematic to me.’ I said I would love to work with Bill Friedkin but it’s a claustrophobic piece. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense to open it up and have these disturbed people out in the world. And he said, ‘First, do no harm. I love the play and I have a way to make the play cinematic, so let’s work on the screenplay.’ And we did.”

Bug Michael Shannon and his teeth

Now while Shannon is well known these days for his work in movies like “99 Homes” and “Man of Steel,” he still had yet to make his big cinematic breakthrough. That would come a few years later in Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road” which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but there was no forgetting who he was after watching “Bug.” Of course, getting the actor cast in the movie was a challenge, but Letts explained how Friedkin championed for him.

“Billy fought really hard for him,” Letts said. “The people who were financing the film had no interest in using Mike, but Billy just insisted. He had seen Mike do the play live, he knew how powerful Mike was in the role, and he knew the role was written for Mike. And Billy actually had a lot of experience casting a lot of unknowns in movies: William L. Petersen in ‘To Live and Die in LA’ was his first big break, Linda Blair and Jason Miller in ‘The Exorcist.” I’m really glad he did (fight for Mike) because among the many pleasures of the film is the fact that Mike’s extraordinary stage performance was preserved on film. The freak out scene where he’s flopping and having a seizure on the bed, he used to do that on stage eight times a week.”

“Bug” was not a big hit when it arrived in movie theaters back in 2007. Part of this was due to competition from summer blockbusters, but it was also the result of what Letts called a terrible marketing campaign. While “Bug” looks like a horror movie, it is at its heart a psychological thriller and a character study. Still, studio executives in their infinite wisdom were convinced they knew what they were doing.

“Lionsgate decided that they were going to do a big opening and they were gonna just try and lure the kids into it like it was ‘Saw’ or ‘Hostel,’” Letts said. “They opened us up on 1,600 screens and they opened it in the summer opposite ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End’ on Memorial Day weekend. Billy had begged them not to do this. We said please don’t open this movie on 1,600 screens. We said this was a terrible mistake; we should open it small and let it build its audience. But they just insisted and ran these terrible trailers on TV with the announcer going, ‘They live in your blood. They feed on your brain.’ So the horror movie kids came in and they hated it, and the people who would have enjoyed the movie didn’t come because they thought it wasn’t their cup of tea. So it just died a terrible death unfortunately.”

Letts also talked about Friedkin and of how he makes a movie. Because this was a low budget feature, its shooting schedule was very short and Friedkin was in no position to be like Stanley Kubrick or David Fincher and do 70 takes of the same scene. Letts also took the time to demystify Friedkin’s reputation.

“Billy shoots quick,” Letts said of Friedkin. “He starts work early in the morning at four o’clock, he’s done and goes home. He brags about the fact that he only shoots one take. That’s not quite true. He will shoot something else if light falls into the shot. Mike used to ask him for another take and Billy said, ‘What, you got stock in Eastman Kodak?’”

Bug Ashley Judd

“Bug” proved to be an emotionally raw cinematic experience and is almost as unnerving as Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.” Both Shannon and Ashley Judd give some of their best performances ever, and Friedkin succeeds in stretching this play beyond its claustrophobic staging to give us something which slams us back into our seats and never lets us go for a second. It was a real treat for the New Beverly audience to have Tracy Letts come down and talk with us. In his heart he still feels like a Chicago theatre guy more than anything else, but along with Friedkin he made a pair of movies which fearlessly went against what was mainstream, and we need movies to go against the grain every once in a while.

Bug movie poster 2

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

 

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