Killer Joe (2011)
I came to this film knowing very little about it and pretty much spoiler-free (which incidentally it’s always the best way films should be watched). However I was very aware of the director Friedkin‘s pedigree and having seen all those 5 stars flashing on the poster, I was building myself up for something really good, if not a masterpiece.
Unfortunately the film left me not just cold, but actually rather annoyed by how uneven and all-over the place it all was. In the end I just can’t help but be baffled by the critical response that it’s gaining.
It won’t take you long to realise what type of film you’ve stepped into and you’ll be able to tell straight away this is certainly not one for everybody and especially not one for the Matthew McConaughey‘s hard-core fans (who are there anyway?!): within the first 30 minutes of the screening I was in, I watched at least 4 different couples standing up and leaving the theatre.
The people depicted in the film certainly don’t belong to your typical American family. You know the ones I mean: the loyal husband kissing goodnight his lovely wife in her nightgown, always looking as if she’d just stepped out of a 2 hour beauty session and all together having a lovely meal around a dinner table… These are people who don’t really talk to each other, but rather “at” each other: they shout, swear, lie. They’re happy to plot the murder their own mother, or their own ex-wife, willing to let their own daughter to have first time sex with a stranger in order to pay what they can’t afford to buy.
Friedkin doesn’t shy away from showing you not just the worst side of everyone, and certainly there is no sugar-coating around any of the depiction of the characters. Just to give you an idea of what I am talking about, let me tell you that the first shot we get of Gina Gershon, introducing her character as she opens the door to her son-in-law in the middle of the night, is an uncompromising view of her private parts. We get it straight away.
The film indeed did leave me with a quite uncomfortable feeling right form the word go, but not so much because of this approach, of the unlikable characters, or grim subject matter, but more because of the way the actual story was all being handled by the director. I couldn’t quite work out how I was supposed to take all this.
On one hand it was clear that Friedkin was talking about that “America” we rarely get to see in movies: shockingly ignorant, naive, violent and brutal. And while this doesn’t certainly make a pleasurable viewing experience, I was very willing to go with it. I was constantly being reminded of films like The Killer Inside Me and yet there was something slightly off about Killer Joe. There was something fake about it: at times the characters seemed to be over-the-top caricatures of themselves: hard to like (of course), to care about and more crucially to believe in them.
It was at least 40 minutes into the film that the audience I was with, started to laugh. Call me thick, but only then I began to realise that all this was actually to be taken as a satire.
Of course, the Killer Joe Cooper himself is at times is filmed like a character from a comic book, and yet other times the camera lingers on him for very long takes, giving the film a much more grounded sense of reality.
But this is a long step away from the harsh realism Friedkin‘s previous masterpieces, like The French Connection and to a degree even The Exorcist, which despite the absurdity of its story, always treated its subject matter with so much respect and honesty that it actually felt incredibly real (which is what made the film so powerful).
What we have in Killer Joe is a weird and uneven hyper-version of reality: and we as the audience are left to watch it from the outside, as you’d probably watch some kind of freak show.
But this isn’t another Natural Born Killers, Killer Joe constantly shifts (especially in the first part) from real to almost parody and even slapstick (the joke with the jacket, however funny, seems to belong to a different film). Some people may argue that this is called “being subtle” and it’s what makes Killer Joe a masterpiece, I personally call it being “all over the place” and eventually found it very hard to digest.
Don’t take me wrong, I am not against satirising violence or ignorance: the Coen Brothers did it in Fargo with splendid results, but while in Fargo there was no fudging, just a perfect unity of tone right from the start, here I couldn’t help feeling that this was a film made by different people pulling in too many directions. All the subplots to do with Emile Hirsch‘s character (which is incidentally the most under-developed in the story) belong to one kind of film, while Thomas Haden Church (who once again plays an idiot) belongs to a different one, and of course Matthew McConaughey seems to have his own show all together.
It all comes together into a final act which is (intentionally) so over-the-top that it cannot leave you but completely baffled. The audience I was with went absolutely wild as if they were watching Airplane! or a Naked Gun movie, which leads me to think I am certainly in the minority of those people who didn’t find it all that funny. It’s a completely personal thing, I understand, but I find it quite fun to laugh at what’s essentially rape… Whatever the message underneath might be.
The episode with the Kentucky Fried Chicken leg will probably remain imprinted in your head for years and years to come, and it might even become as classic moment in cinema as the Royale with Cheese speech in Pulp Fiction; it’s certainly a non very subtle visualisation of the message the film is trying to carry, but to be honest at that point I had already lost my patience and when the ending finally came, as abruptly as it did, I was as happy to leave the theatre as I have rarely been. Was I offended? Not particularly. That would give the film more credit that I’d like to give it. I just thought it was all a bit pointless.