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.

Michelle Monaghan and Ron Livingston on the Making of ‘Fort Bliss’

Fort Bliss movie poster

Claudia Myers’ “Fort Bliss” deals with something we don’t see much in movies: the challenges of being a female soldier and a single mom at the same time. The movie stars Michelle Monaghan as U.S. army medic Maggie Swann who has just returned home after serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan. But instead of arriving to greet her son Paul (Oakes Fegley) at the air base, she instead finds him back at home with his dad, her ex-husband Richard (Ron Livingston), and stepmom, and he doesn’t really remember her much. From there, Maggie works to repair the bond between her and Paul before her duties in the military threaten to tear them apart yet again.

Both Monaghan and Livingston dropped by the SLS Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the “Fort Bliss’” press day, and it was fascinating to hear about their experiences making this particular movie. This was a very low budget production, so there wasn’t much time for anyone to waste. I always wondered how actors deal with the lack of time because we are led to believe they are used to working on movies which allow them to take a nap in their trailers between takes while the crew sets up for the next shot. But while having fewer resources can seriously affect some actors, Monaghan and Livingston did not let any limitations stand in their way.

“There’s something really exciting about the idea that they just don’t have time to micromanage you in your performance, so there’s a lot more responsibility to just show up,” Livingston said. “Your first take on it is gonna be the take that goes into the movie by and large unless it’s really egregious because there’s not a lot of time to waste tinkering with it, you know?”

“It is true that you don’t have a lot of time to play with it,” Monaghan said. “I think that’s why the prep time becomes so essential for an independent film. It’s your responsibility as an actor or a director or a writer to really play your part. You can’t just turn up and expect all these experts to show you something on the day. That’s really, really important. That’s a part of our job, and also we shot this movie in 21 days. It was so incredibly exciting because we were living, eating and breathing it. We shot in two different locations in and around Los Angeles and then Fort Bliss (in El Paso, Texas) with the help of the Army. With all their resources, the production value looks by far more than what we had for it.

“21 days with combat sequences is pretty incredible,” Livingston noted.

Again, I imagine some actors would have preferred to have more time to prepare for the roles, but they don’t always have that opportunity. When it comes down to it, they have to work with what they are given instead of complain about what’s working against them. For Monaghan, the fact there wasn’t a lot of down time on the set of “Fort Bliss” didn’t affect her too much.

“There’s not (a lot of down time), but I always tend to find that I feel the strongest about performances in general when they’re shot in that way because you’re in it,” Monaghan said. “You are in the thick of it, and to say that I go to sleep at night and dream about the character and the role, you are. It’s 21 days where you’re attacking it for that period of time, and you don’t have time to think about it. Good things tend to come from that.”

One of the best scenes in “Fort Bliss” comes at the beginning when Maggie and dozens of other troops are returning home from Afghanistan. It looked like the production succeeded in hiring the best background extras they could find as they looked so incredibly enthusiastic in welcoming the soldiers home, but it turns out there was a lot more authenticity involved than we realized.

“When you see the coming home scenes at the beginning, it was truly people of soldier’s families, military wives, husbands, and children that two days prior had just welcomed one of those big planes home,” Monaghan said. “Fort Bliss sent out an email saying, ‘Would you guys come back two days later to shoot a scene?’ So they brought back all their signs and it was amazing. The military band was there and even the Harley Davison guys came back and all the former vets with their bikes and everything. Everybody was so proud to be there. That’s so profound to be able to have that experience and to feel that energy of what it’s like and everybody hugging one another. To be able to have that access and that resource was so invaluable. We constantly had that throughout the process of filming. I say this film has been so blessed, but it has. I’m so grateful to everybody in how far reaching the efforts that everybody has gone to.”

“Fort Bliss” may be coming in under the radar, but it is truly deserving of your attention. It deals with the female perspective of war and how women still have a stigma attached to them whenever they serve in the military. Many expect women to stay at home and be a mother to their children instead of fighting wars overseas, but life continues to be more complicated than we expect it to be, and nothing is ever that simple.

You can also check out this video interview I did with Monaghan and Livingston which I did for the website We Got This Covered.