NZFF – Killer Joe
This overblown piece of pulp fiction about a cop who kills people for money does exactly what it says on the tin – so given I took the tin off the shelf, opened it, gorged for nearly two hours and then felt sick, it was my own silly fault really. Doubtless others in the audience may be feeling the same way.
Echoing last year’s The Killer Inside Me, Matthew McConaughey plays a law man who saunters through life as a law-breaker, hired by loserville Chris Smith (Into The Wild‘s Emile Hirsch) to kill Chris’ mother so he can reap the insurance payout and settle his own criminal dues. McConaughey’s Joe encounters Chris’ family of reprobates, immediately sizing them up as the undesirables they will prove to be, though he takes a fancy to Chris’ innocent younger sister Dottie, and claims her as his “retainer”.
The similarities with Jim Thompson’s noir novel are several, including the brutal and explicit beating of women and the impassive countenance of a smooth but crooked copper. However, in The Killer Inside Me Casey Affleck impressed as a physically timid-looking, squeaky-voiced protagonist with nuanced motivations, and the script and performances were neatly directed by the excellent Michael Winterbottom. By comparison, McConaughey – although potentially a career-best performance (which is still a bit of a backhanded compliment) – is already strapping, strong and indisputably the cool guy in town, controlling the backward Smith family and delivering some nasty blows.
With a collaborative film like this, it’s hard to know where to criticise the writer or the filmmaker. Gina Gershon’s introduction – naked crotch first – is as grating for her acting histrionics as the exploitative nature of her character. Strangely, a dopey Thomas Haden Church (from Sidewaysand TV’s Ned and Staceyback in the ’90s) brings relief to the harshness of Hirsch and Gershon’s effing and blinding, although his disloyal father figure rather deserves his own comeuppance. Chris brought the whole thing upon himself. Frankly, everyone’s horrid.
The story comes from the pen of Tracy Letts (a TV actor whose play has been a hit on Broadway and also staged here in NZ, and who wrote the film’s screenplay). Surprising, but then again not so much, is that the tawdry content has been directed by William Friedkin – legendary director of ’70s classics such as The French Connection and The Exorcist, and now 76 years old. Friedkin has clearly not lost his touch for feeding audience appetites, but his ability to produce such a nasty piece of work as this is somewhat disturbing. The worst scenes in the film are part-horror in their cruelty and part-genius for making us squirm and wonder at our own motives for watching.
For me, the revelation was Juno Temple’s characterisation of the slightly dotty Dottie, emotionally vulnerable and a little kooky yet the only shining light in the whole dismal picture. Temple won’t be remembered for previous roles in Atonement and The Dark Knight Rises, but this outstanding performance ought to see her move swiftly on to great things. Dottie not only serves as a justification for Joe’s own weakness, but ours for having thought we actually like this kind of movie.