Ruthless People

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.


15 Responses to “Ruthless People”

  1. GET TO KNOW EMILE! He’s a total delight, on screen and off. His major performances are in Sean Penn’s (rather underrated) Into the Wild and Gus’ Milk (his best scene is where he jumps a friend’s boyfriend in a moment of pure sexual spontaneity.)

    Had it been in effect at the time I haven’t the slightest doubt that the original cut of Cruising would have been awarded an NC-17.

    BTW, if you get a chance to chat with him, ask Friedkin about his two pieces of “filmed theater” : Pinter’s The Birthday Party and Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. Both are quite expert, IMO.

  2. David E –

    So glad you like BOYS IN THE BAND. A lot of gay men complain that it doesn’t have enough ‘positive’ (read Politically Correct) images – but I’ve spent many a similar evening in my time, and I’m sure you have too.

    As for CRUISING…are we really supposed to believe that Pacino’s character spent all that time under cover in Greenwich Village and never ever got it on with a man? Oh, puh-leeze! He’d be found out within a week if that were true.

  3. Alas, Friedkin headed off soon after the screening.

    I HAVE seen Milk but somehow hadn’t noticed that it was the same guy. Testament to Hirsch’s transformative abilities, I guess.

    Friedkin talked a little about The Birthday Party at his q&a, saying how much he learned about drama from Pinter. And he talked about Cruising, which went back and forth to the MPPA “fifty times.” The deleted footage he referred to as “hardcore homosexual pornography.” He was SORT OF aware of why many of the people the film purports to represent don’t care for it. But only sort of.

  4. Here’s my two cents on Cruising.

    If you’re looking for a film that really delves into the West Village underbelly see Patrice Chereau’s L’Homme Blesse It’s set in France but was based on his observations of gay New York in the 70’s.

    The Boys in the Band arrived in 1968 — which is to say one year before Stonewall. After Stonewall it was seen by some gay politicos as a relic — full of all the “bad stuff” we’d supposedly transcended. But in truth “gay families” like that continue (Terence McNally’s Love! Valor! Compassion! offering a perfect example of one.) Mart Crowley went on to make a ton of money as head writer on Hart to Hart but his post Boys plays never caught one. He’s an incredibly nice guy and the executor of Gavin Lambert’s estate (as they were a couple towards the close of Gavin’s life.)

  5. The demand for positivity is understandable, but not always compatible with drama. And Friedkin doesn’t really do positivity.

    Must see that doc!

  6. I would also include Friedkin’s 1997 version of “12 Angry Men” among his pieces of expert “filmed theater.” Sure, it was originally written as a teleplay, but it has been performed on the stage many times since.

    It’s hard to beat Lumet’s version, but Friedkin’s remake is fascinating in its own right – particularly Jack Lemmon’s performance, his “ordinary guy” take on the role ultimately more believable to me than Henry Fonda’s liberal superman. And you can watch the whole thing here:

  7. Once again, as was the case with BUG, the theater version is what I know and like. Here’s a piece which (1) I like a lot, and (2) came to mind when I saw a performance of the KILLER JOE play. Perhaps it might apply to Friedkin’s movie, too?

  8. Genius. And dead-on.

    Friedkin gives Letts a surprisingly generous credit which basically positions writer and director as co-auteurs of the film, and he spoke very highly of Letts’ talent.

    The first incarnation of the play started life at the Edinburgh Fringe years ago. And Gina Gershon was offered a role in an LA production but didn’t think she could bear doing it night after night. I’m sure filming it with Billy was a doddle…

    Thanks, C. Jerry, I’ve been curious about 12AM for some time.

  9. David E…

    I have a copy of L’HOMME BLESSE in the house but have never actually watched it, as it looks quite traumatic and I think I’d need to be in the right mood.

    My problem with LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION! is that it’s grossly and gratuitously sentimental, which BOYS IN THE BAND is not.

    I’ve long been curious about Mart Crowley for his connection to Gavin Lambert (what an amazing man!). Of course, both men were close friends of Natalie Wood.

    Were they also ‘close friends’ of Robert Wagner, I wonder? It would be very naughty of me to speculate further.

  10. Something about Jeffrey Hunter and Robert Wagner’s career seems inexplicable if they weren’t somehow giving more satisfaction offscreen than they achieved onscreen. But maybe they were just so beautiful that directors couldn’t help but cast them.

    The guy in Peter Bogdanovich’s Natalie Wood biopic does a great Wagner impersonation. And you wouldn’t think there was enough there to mimic. In fact, it gave me a new appreciation of Wagner’s distinctive manner.

  11. David, I’m definitely with you on this one.

    Both RW and JH invariably set my gaydar a-ticking!

  12. Makes sense when you look at who was casting Hunter, anyway.

  13. Well they were/are both babes. Know nohting about Hunter, but Wagner, it should be noted, had an affair with Barbara Stanwyck circa Titanic.

    Crowley has long considered RJ (as Wagner is known to his intimates) as a great friend. Natalie Wood’s death is one of Hollywood’s greatest tragedies. As with all “scandals” it was a simple matter. Everyone was very drunk that night and she accidentally fell off the boat and drowned.

    Had the enormous pleasure of meeting Natalie Wood and RJ many years ago at the premiere of Willie and Phil (in which she did a cameo as herself) SHE GLOWED IN THE DARK!

  14. It seems like any tragedy, if examined closely enough, throws up strange mysteries and aberrant bits of behaviour which can be woven into conspiracies and plots by those so inclined. And some of them ARE plots, but probably a minority.

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