Cruising, from 1980, is a rather terrible movie, but we learned from it important things about director William Friedkin, chiefly that he is about as vigorously heterosexual as a man can be,* and that he seemingly possesses a deep, abiding horror of sex. I bring this up because his newest film, Killer Joe, is apparently as far removed from Cruising as two movies made by the same director can be, and yet it reinforces the exact same lessons: an inordinate amount of time is spent slavering over the naked female body in the most unabashedly Male Gaze-ey way I've seen in years, and the instant that the leering transitions into actual sexual behavior, he recoils with the purest hate. Not that Killer Joe is delicate about depicting sexual behavior; but that the sexual behavior it depicts in lingering, explicit detail is made to seem so nightmarishly unappealing.
This is not, mind you, meant to be a slam against Killer Joe, which is much nervier than most American movies we might name (after all, how many American movies that you've seen lately could support a debate about their approach to sex?), and a bold gesture in finding just how dark a black comedy can get before it stops being funny; that the film never quite crosses that line in the wrong direction is very much its saving grace. If the movie ever actually committed to the story it was telling and the vicious characters within it, it would be quite unbearably nihilistic, but since it constantly keeps one foot - one toe, anyway - entrenched in a warped, at times absurdist sense of humor, from which it makes fun of the situation it presents rather than seriously engaging with it, the film remains for every inch of its running time compulsively, outrageously watchable, making it impossible to look away for a second even as some of its more extreme moments enthusiastically test the mettle of all comers.
The film is Friedkin's second collaboration with writer Tracy Letts, following Bug from 2006, which like Killer Joe was adapted by Letts himself from one of his plays; it is also a superior movie in virtually all ways, as drama, as exploitation picture, and even, though only just, as actors' showcase; though Bug, the play, is also better than Killer Joe, the play, which was Letts's first, and has all the seeming of a fairly young-ish writer's attempt to shock the squares, where Bug contains, not to be too pedantic or anything, but more of a "point". It's a simple situation: twentysomething Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is in deep with some thugs, and needs money fast; he proposes to his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and step-mother Sharla (Gina Gershon) that they higher a local police detective and contract murderer "Killer Joe" Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), and killer Chris's mother Adele, a person whose death, it would seem, would bother exactly no people in the entire world, for thus they can all collect on the insurance which would thus be paid out to Chris's younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple), a mentally fragile young woman (it's implied that this is due to childhood abuse at Adele's hands) living with Ansel and Sharla. Joe is reluctantly fine to take this job on retainer, holding Dottie as collateral, and then falling in love with her; and then Things Go Wrong, because Things Going Wrong With Simple Kidnap-Murder Plots was a thing back in the 1990s, and it's worth pointing out that the 1993 play is just a couple of years older than Fargo, a conceptually similar dark comedy, though Killer Joe is so much darker, so pervasively, as to make the Coens' famously nasty thriller look like a Victorian chamber comedy.
The movie, as does the play, founders on its shallowness: once you get beyond "awful people sometimes behave awfully", there's not a lot of "there" to this scenario. What keeps it alive is the zestiness with which Letts and Friedkin present that awfulness, which is phenomenally zesty: the crude dialogue dances back and forth, and the sick energy of the material gets off to a rousing, no-holds barred start when the very first scene, barring a couple of establishing shots, presents Gershon wandering around half-naked - the bottom half - and snarling invective at Hirsch, who snarls right back. It's uncut exploitation like we hardly ever get to see anymore: the ironic gloss that a Tarantino or Rodriguez wraps their own neo-exploitation in is nowhere to be found in a movie that is grubby, mean, and gross, and extravagantly proud of itself for being those things.
That may be, and probably is, morally indefensible, but god-damn if the thing doesn't sizzle. And that, maybe, is the "point" that I do not find otherwise: this is maddeningly compelling, and if it's exploitation at most, at least it gets the heart and soul of exploitation right, which is that one should not merely shock and offend, but thoroughly entertain or at least captivate, and the one thing Killer Joe never stops being is captivating: there's a scene in which we know one character's secret, we know that one other character knows this secret, and the resulting cat-and-mouse banter is as pristine an example of what a thriller can be, in terms of its effect on the audience, as modern cinema has produces. Thrills all down the line, and sardonic humor to keep the most disgusting elements (primarily a nauseating explosion of violence, then sexualised violence, then just violence again, near the end) from being too alienating. When we praise genre films for the sake of being genre films, this is what we mean: the magnetic, high-speed, energy-for-energy's-sake momentum and sleaziness just because it's an easy way to keep our eyes fixed on the screen. A movie that is delirious to watch and has no greater aim.
Getting to that point required Friedkin and Letts operating on precisely the same wavelength, which they do, thrillingly (I wish, no joking at all, that Friedkin had gotten his hands on August: Osage County). It also required a pitch-perfect cast, which it got: especially McConaughey, whose 2012 has been unimaginably rewarding, and whose work as the amoral killer with the ditzy schoolboy sense of romance is at least as good as his irritable lawyer in Bernie, if not quite up to his self-satisfied, lizardish MC in Magic Mike, though all three of them have a strong "career-best" argument to be made; and Temple, one of those new actresses who has been floating around for years without ever finding the Career-Making Moment that she gets as the foggy, childlike seductress whose discovery of her sexuality is electrifying and deeply troubling. Just watching the two of these actors skulk around each other is as gripping as cinema gets; and they're wonderfully supported by Church's commitment to playing the unfathomably dumb comic relief dad without ever looking down on the character or making him a simple buffoon, and Gershon's lazily savage expression of sexuality (which is, admittedly something Gershon always does, but if a character is a great fit for a performer, there's no harm in casting her as such). Only Hirsch is less than flawless, though that's not the same as calling him bad; just that he's outclassed by four more-or-less perfect co-stars.
So if nothing else, Killer Joe is a tremendous opportunity for actor-spotting; I personally regard it as a tremendous opportunity for much else, such as the sheer untrammeled joy of getting whipped back and forth by a movie that doesn't know what "failure of nerve" means. It's not in the top tier of Friedkin's genre exercises, which are sometimes quite considerable, but there's no chance of a more excitingly grubby thriller showing up any time soon.
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