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.