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Monday, July 02, 2012 

Film review: Killer Joe.

(Possible spoilers etc etc.)

If there's one thing that films don't have enough of these days, it's opening scenes that feature a quite magnificent lady garden. Well, OK, off the top of my head the only other movie I can recall having a shot of full-on bush, as it were, right at the very beginning is Russ Meyer's stupendous Up!, which has Kitten Natividad stark naked at the top of a tree, but the point stands. It's therefore unsurprising to find that the MPAA, ever the prudes when it comes to sex but notoriously forgiving of the most brutal violence have decreed that William Friedkin's latest can only be shown in the US with a NC-17 rating (the equivalent of our 18), historically the commercial kiss of death, limiting the number of cinemas willing to show it.

It's a shame as, if the trailers before Killer Joe are anything to go by, those of us on both sides of the Atlantic are otherwise in for the usual summer diet of crap, dog shit and regurgitated pellets. Refreshing as it is to see my local World of Cine showing something that hasn't been focus grouped to death, you still die a little inside knowing that there's a fourth Ice Age film on the horizon, or that Seth MacFarlane, not content with beating the already derivative Family Guy into the ground, is making his big screen directorial d├ębut with a film starring a man child and his CGI teddy bear. Yes, for those suitably inclined there is Chris Nolan's third and final Batman film fast approaching, but forgive me if I fail to get excited about yet another comic book superhero movie. When Spiderman gets a "reboot" barely a decade after Sam Raimi's first effort, something is deeply wrong either with our attention spans or Hollywood itself. I'm going for the latter.

But I digress. Killer Joe is a rare thing: it's an exploitation film masquerading as a stage play. Or rather, it's a stage play masquerading as an exploitation film. The vast majority of the action takes place in the Smith's trailer, somewhere in Texas, where outside it appears to eternally rain. The Smiths are not quite the rednecks or white trash of stereotype, but they're not far off. The father, Ansell Smith, played to Eeyore-ish perfection by Thomas Haden Church, is a deeply dim mechanic, and his son Chris (Emile Hirsch) isn't much brighter. After being kicked out yet again by his mother Adele, following an argument caused by her stealing and selling his drug supply to fund her alcoholism, Chris returns to his father with an idea: how about they bump Adele off and claim on her life insurance? Although they've long been cut out of her policy, Adele still has a soft spot for Dottie (Juno Temple), the second child she had with Ansell, and she's now the only beneficiary.

Faced with finding $6,000 or being killed, Chris's mind is already made up, and Ansell isn't hard to convince either. That leaves Dottie, who to the surprise of both willingly acquiesces to the scheme. Temple's Dottie is meant to be 20, but could easily pass for 16. A supposed virgin, she isn't anywhere near as naive or innocent as all those around her imagine her to be, and instantly reminds of an older, slightly less coquettish Lolita, Temple's acting both subtle and charismatic. Chris is enamoured with her to the point that there's a suggestion of incest, and with this family it wouldn't surprise. The wildcard is Gina Gershon's Sharla, Ansell's second wife, who seems sharper than those surrounding her, but still has the tendency to wander around the trailer with her hirsute pudenda on display.

The man Chris is told to approach about his plan is Joe, a detective who carries out murders as a sideline. The only problem is that he wasn't told about Joe's conditions, that being $25,000, up front. Having first been directed to the trailer where only Dottie was in residence, Joe (Matthew McConaughey) decides that he can still carry out the killing as long as Dottie acts as his retainer, something which naturally neither Chris or Ansell directly tell her about until the last minute. Much of what follows is centred around this use of Dottie as a commodity.

As I can't say I'm familiar with McConaughey's oeuvre, I can't really add much to those who are expressing delight at his transformation from an actor who takes his shirt off in romantic comedies to the scuzzball creep he portrays here. What is apparent is just how much he relished doing something completely different, and it comes across wonderfully in his performance: Joe's contempt for this dimwitted family is absolute, and he enjoys toying with them, yet he's disarmed by the charm of Dottie. Not to the point though where he doesn't all but force her into sex, demanding that she strip in front of him rather than change into the little black dress bought for the occasion back in the privacy of her room.

While much of the film does take place indoors, those scenes that are shot outside are composed fabulously. Best of all is the one just before the final act where Dottie and Chris walk along railroad tracks, the decay all around them while the sun beats down, Chris trying to convince his sister to escape from this effective prison with him. What Chris doesn't realise is that she doesn't necessarily want to get away from where she lives, just from all those who are "suffocating" her. The much-talked about final act inexorably follows on from this exchange, and while some will be either disgusted or find it amusing for all the wrong reasons, it doesn't quite manage to ruin all that's gone before. Whether taken as a pitch black comedy, so black that there's only really one out loud laugh in it, a southern gothic noir or a twisted, perverse thriller, there's enough enjoyment to be had from Friedkin's latest as to be able to recommend it, flaws such as the fact that Joe doesn't seem to do much police work, or that Emile Hirsch as Chris is often just a little too wide-eyed to be wholly convincing taken into account. Just don't expect to be able to eat fried chicken for a while afterwards.

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One of the many things I love about living in Britain is that, whilst an NC-17 will kill a film in the US, an 18 will cause nobody here to even bat an eyelash (well, okay, Ann Whitticomb, maybe), and the cinema will probably be filled with 13-year-olds.

And depressingly the new Seth McFarlane film has done huge business in the USA on its opening weekend - he was bad enough when just a TV success!

Good review

You do have to applaud Friedkin for managing to get something of substance out there is this bankrupt era of sequels, comic book adaptations and cartoons but the film isn't the masterpiece that many have made out.

Even crackers taste like steak to the man dying of hunger.

My review: http://neonmessiah.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/film-review-killer-joe.html

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