Saturday, October 13, 2012
Taking place in cramped trailers, run-down streets on the side of the railroad tracks that time forgot, and strip clubs lit in the electric zapper blues of Friedkin's last film, Bug, Killer Joe erects a world so white-trash that it could contain any redneck. Well, almost any redneck, for the film populates itself with such extreme Southern-fried types that they clash as violently with this setting as they would in Beverly Hills. Friedkin wastes no time establishing the lunacy of his dramatis personae, with debt-ridden drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) beating on a trailer door in the dead of night as the film opens, only to be greeted by a close-up of Gina Gershon's bottomless, be-merkined unmentionables. Vulgarity and casual domestic violence ensues. But Gershon plays Chris' stepmom, Sharla, and she gets off light compared to how Chris views his biological mother. To him, the latter is just a hefty life insurance policy waiting to be collected and the answer his problems with his drug supplier. When he offers to cut the rest of the family in on the loot, no one raises any objection to the idea of having the woman killed, not even the seeming bundle of innocence, Chris' teen sister Dottie (Juno Temple).
This, as it turns out, is the tame part of the film. Having found such agreeable chemistry with playwright Tracy Letts' words and subject matter with Bug, the two seem even more attuned with each other in Joe, where Letts' grotesque characters mesh beautifully with Friedkin's nasty direction. He tends to shoot in medium and medium close-up, pushing the viewer deeper into the depraved violence and lurid sex. (Films can get a NC-17 rating just for having too much nudity. Killer Joe wraps its nudity in incestuous desires and underage sex, practically daring the MPAA to invent an even stricter rating to deal with it.) Swooning camera movements only exacerbate the sense of discomfort as Friedkin constantly reels toward and away (but not nearly away enough) from the character's schemes and abhorrent behavior.
Intimacy is a hallmark of Friedkin's style, though it is often of the sort that ultimately pushes people away. The tracking shots in the gay clubs of Cruising moved horizontally but always felt like a descent into hell for Pacino's protagonist, who never has a clear break in morphing from hero to villain but gradually becomes so monstrous that the audience only realizes what is happening when escape is impossible. In The French Connection's climax, Doyle kills the federal agent hounding his extreme measures rather than the drug smuggler, though by that point one cannot say whether this is a grotesque accident or a seized opportunity. Killer Joe likewise, plunges into its filth, to the point that you can practically smell the smoke-infused walls and cheap beer stains on the carpet of the Smith's trailer. Ironic distance just ain't Friedkin's bag, though in a way that is a good thing. A long shot in this film is the only thing more unbearable than the more proximal shots. It gives clarity to that which is excruciating enough in piecemeal.
In a way, Killer Joe serves as the inverse of another immaculately composed, Texan black comic thriller, the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men. (McConaughey in particular left such a strong impression that, for a brief second, I even thought he acted in the other film until I remembered I was thinking of the Woody Harrelson role.) Their film went medium-to-long shot to Friedkin's medium-close-to-even-closer, stepping away from the action to take stock of the sad waste of the violence. It meshed perfectly with Cormac McCarthy's spare but universal writing, using its critical separation to make harrowing observations on the perpetuity of human violence. Killer Joe contents itself to stick with its characters, not tying them to a larger fabric but following their demented arc so closely that the audience cannot be extricated from what it sees.
And it's all held together by McConaughey, who turns the Sheriff Bell character from No Country into Anton Chigurh. He rarely raises his voice, and from the second he meets his new employers, gears begin turning behind his eyes as he makes contingency plans if—no, scratch that, when—Chris does not follow through on his end of the bargain. Joe never asks for anything; he merely says what he will take. Instantly gauging the likelihood of collecting payment for this job, Joe informs Chris and Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) that he will take Dottie as a "retainer" for his services until they can raise his fee. So matter of factly does McConaughey announce this news that neither brother nor father raises an objection. But the degree of gentility the actor adds to Joe's controlling, sadistic side during his "date" with Dottie makes his domineering presence even worse. It dresses up Joe in a mask of decency that confuses the poor girl as his polite, understanding behavior during dinner gives way to softly spoken but firm commands to obey him.
McConaughey has such a profound effect on the other characters that they react to him in distinct ways. Temple nearly steals the movie from McConaughey with her airy calm that mixes two parts naïveté with one part shining. The actress' sharp, angled canines have always lent her smiles an equal element of baby-teeth cuteness and serrated warning, and she has never played up that ambiguity so well. When they first meet, Joe sits at a table in the position closest to the camera, his black clothing rippling out across the left side of the frame as he stretches out lethargically to wait for his clients to arrive. Dottie, meanwhile, curls into a vertical line, folding her legs up to her torso and sitting bolt upright; even her hair stands up in an awkward bunch. This posturing makes her hard to read, harder still when she begins asking forthright questions about Joe's killings with a tone that balances on a knife edge between open curiosity and barely concealed bloodlust. Joe never looks so ever again, but this little girl has clearly rattled something in his unflappable core.
That core is on full display, however, with the other members of the Smith family. Chris' eyes dart over the man and his voice trembles as he perpetually weighs whom he fears more, the mob boss about to kill him or the killer who can deliver him from his fate. Like a caged animal, Chris slowly grows bolder with Joe as his desperation mounts, but this only increases his chances of death. Ansel, who does not have to fret about the mob, can devote all his attention to fearing Joe, often saying and moving as little as possible in the man's presence as if the killer were a T-Rex, unable to spot you if you stand perfectly still. Sharla, poor Sharla, seems to feel at ease around Joe, perhaps overconfident that she could twirl him around her pinky like every other man in her life. That assumption costs her dearly in the film's climax, in which a chicken leg is used to push the comedy into full horror. A caesura that comes on a wave of bloodletting is, despite its final gag of a cliffhanger, a blessed relief from the nightmare. The best Friedkin films never really conclude anyway; they just finally let you out of the chokehold.