Archive for Tracy Letts

Ruthless People

Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2012 by dcairns

An ebullient William Friedkin and a glamorous Gina Gershon presented KILLER JOE, the EIFF’s opening night film. I’m typing this with a colossal hangover after the party, a swank affair conducted at the Royal Museum, where the Innis & Gunn 0ak-aged beer flowed freely. So (1) I’m typing very softly. Forgive me if the letters appear faint. And (2) my memory of the film appears as if from behind a thick, obscuring cloud. Bear with me.

I liked BUG, and KILLER JOE looks a lot like it — hard, sharp, neon-bright cinematography (this time by the great Caleb Deschanel). Both derive from plays by Tracy Letts, who scripted. KILLER JOE is more “opened out,” so people keep going places for no essential reason, but that’s OK. The play’s the thing, and this one is, I’d say, tighter and more satisfyingly plotted than its predecessor — and the cast is terrific. BUG helped make a name for Michael Shannon, and this one ought to do the same for Juno Temple. I don’t see that many new films so I didn’t know her or Emile Hirsch.

Basically, Hirsch’s trailer-trash dope dealer is in debt to some bad guys, so he hires contract killer Joe (Mathew McConaughey) to kill his mother for the insurance. This lady is so popular that her ex-husband (Thomas Haden Church) and daughter (Temple) are quite happy to go along with this deal. Gina Gershon, Church’s current wife, is also in on the act.

McConaughey rediscovers the intensity that made him so striking in LONE STAR, and which he’s dispensed with in all the fluffy fair he’s done since. In fact, he goes further — this is one of the most impressive psychopaths in recent years (and it’s not like there aren’t plenty to choose from). Friedkin is the man for this kind of thing, I guess.

Note the stitching on Church’s shoulder — subject of the year’s best visual gag.

On the one hand, this is a film about family, and can best be taken as a horrifically funny, nasty satire on the whole concept of family life. Any assumptions about family ties are dismissed as baloney, greed trumps morality, and even love can flip over into murderous violence at a moment’s notice. Since the driving force is a debt that is incurred (a contract killing where the killer cannot be paid as arranged), it’s arguably about the financial crisis. I had a nice debate at the party with a friend who bemoaned the film’s misogyny and clichés and thought that was a real stretch. I’m not sure Friedkin has ever cared particularly what message his films might be putting out — he wants them to be effective, which means provoking the audience, and on that level KILLER JOE is his best film in years. The audience laughed and winced as one. It’s Friedkin’s first NC-17 rated film in the US.

Didn’t get the chance to congratulate him afterwards — maybe I’d have been too scared. He’s supremely affable in person, but with, you know, an edge. I did shake Elliott Gould’s hand and congratulate him on FRED, which I had a small role in selecting. “I’ve seen your film,” I bellowed over the music. “I haven’t,” said E.G. “But I gather it’s about the human condition. And getting too old.”

This morning, I know exactly the feeling.

The Barbara Stanwyck of aphids

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2008 by dcairns

“In my blood.”

Yes, BUG. Rather impressive. You have to see it just for the concept of “the Barbara Stanwyck of aphids.” Can you really live with your lack of knowledge of what that expression signifies?

Let’s be clear, this is the William Friedkin BUG, not the Jeannot Szwarc BUG, which was a rather enjoyable William Castle production about fire-raising insects with a group mind. Castle should be celebrated not only for his gimmicks (Emerg-O, Percepto) but for the weird ideas permeating his mainly macabre oeuvre(I spelled it right!) PROJECT X features cloning and virtual reality in a goddamn SIXTIES film, while THE TINGLER famously posits a parasite that lives on our spines, feeds on fear, and is deactivated by screaming. In this light, Castle productions like ROSEMARY’S BABY (a Manhattan coven breeds the antichrist in the Dakota Building) and even LADY FROM SHANGHAI (a rich weirdo hires someone to kill him) can be slotted neatly into Castle’s world. And don’t even get me started on SHANKS. An electro-galvanist love story silent film with Marcel Marceau and an undead motorcycle gang? RESPECT!

Smoke alarms: more radioactive than plutonium, apparently.

HOWEVER, Friedkin’s BUG is a different beast (though Friedkin more schlockmeister than Castle), a genuinely paranoid drama that, like THE EXORCIST, has already claimed a life (according to last month’s Fortean Times, which I don’t have handy, somebody who saw the film cut somebody else open, in order to “get the bugs out”). I would advise, if you think you may be a paranoid schizophrenic (and one of the symptoms is a lack of insight, so if you think you aren’t, that might mean you ARE) you probably should stay away from this film.

But if not, how can you resist the Stanwyck aphid? And here’s another one: Harry Connick’s sausage truck. You won’t see the truck in the film (Harry’s sausage-hauling days are of yesteryear), but you will hear about it, and you can readily picture Harry rumbling up the nocturnal highways, munching a Yorkie Bar and delivering meaty goodness to sundry destinations.

You’re really best seeing this knowing as little as possible, because it has a fascinatingly unpredictable journey. I won’t say “narrative arc” because it’s more like a twisted zigzag with bits missing.

Ashley Judd is excellent, Connick Jnr. is amazingly hateful (“Will somebody please fuck Harry Connick up?” I demanded after half an hour, and you know what a peaceable fellow I am) and Michael Shannon is the man of the match. A sort of unspoiled Ray Liotta. Very very interesting guy. The interviews on the DVD make him seem uncomfortably like his character, too, which makes me think maybe we need a raving lunatic like Friedkin to hire someone as… disconcerting as this.

When he tells Judd his father was a preacher, she asks what church, and he says no church. “Where did he… meet his people?” she asks. “Well… he didn’t really have any,” shrugs Shannon. A likeable guy!

Believe me, asides from the lovely odd concepts flung up by Tracy Letts’ unique script (from his play), I could stick in some dazzling and bewildering screen grabs here, but I really don’t want to spoil this one for you. Whether you like it or not in the end, you’ll get more out of it by going in virginal.

My only worry about the piece is an uncertainty as to whether it actually has any purpose beyond the usual Friedkin shock tactics (which are very effective here). It’s a study of paranoia, sure, and a love story about lonely, damaged people (and its outsider sympathy feels genuine), but as some helpless and angry-sounding punter on the IMDb Message Boards puts it, “What do you Honestly think this MOVIE IS ABOUT???”

If it’s Friedkin’s best work in years (decades?) it may be because this is all he can manage now — an eye-grabbing, disorienting little chamber piece with no particular point to make, just a strong handle on its own passion. Friedkin himself, I’m told, regards the inane JADE as one of his best works, which suggests a man who values a certain surface gloss over everything else, but his peculiar, sadistic talents have always been better served by works that can embrace confusion of purpose, extreme sensation, and some kind of heightened but recognisable reality. The best results are always morally questionable (I think Friedkin may actually be something of a psychopath), sleazy, and hysterically intense. The quality of thinking is never as high as the adrenalin level, but some kind of interesting ideas will at least be thrown up. BUG manages all this, plus some convincing, screwed-up humanity, which is a relief after CRUISING, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. and THE GUARDIAN.

A stray point: BUG features, by way of opening out the play, a sympathetically-presented lesbian honky tonk bar, which could be read as atonement for the shrill homophobic terror marketed by CRUISING. If so, it’s WAY too little too late, but at least it’s something.

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