KILLER JOE (KILLER BILL)By Greg Klymkiw
In Praise of William Friedkin
An Appreciation of a Great American Director
A few days ago, I had the pleasure and honour to speak over the telephone with one of the world's greatest living filmmakers William Friedkin. Before diving into a delightful conversation about his new film and previous hits, I had to don my Geek FanBoy Hat and express my complete and utter love for Killer Joe.
So, somewhat nervously and haltingly I said:
"Now perhaps, Mr. Friedkin, even you will think I'm out of my mind - and I say this, only because whenever I tell many others my feelings about Killer Joe, they look at me as if I'm Norman Bates. But bear with me, here. The God's honest truth is this: When I first saw your film last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, I felt as if your movie was shooting thousands of volts of electricity through me. From beginning to end, my delight was so palpable that aside from constant shocks, surprises, jolts, gooseflesh and yes, laughs - many, many laughs of the most raucous variety - the joy your film brought me was physical, visceral and so insanely mind-numbing and mind-expanding all at once, that upon leaving the theatre after the lights came up, I can only describe how I felt in one word. Mr. Friedkin, your film put such a spring in my step that I felt utterly and positively . . . BUOYANT!"
Mr. Friedkin let out a huge laugh.
He repeated the word: "Buoyant!" and he continued laughing.
I suspect, given the fact that Killer Joe is one of the most violent and delectably nasty black-comedy-crime-thrillers in years that "buoyant" is the last word Mr. Friedkin would ever associate with someone's response to the picture.
To say this pleased me would be an understatement.
I love Friedkin, have always loved Friedkin and will, no doubt, continue to love Friedkin. In these dark days with American cinema plunging into the same (if not -gulp- worse) hollow pit it wallowed in during the period Pauline Kael more than adequately summed up as the "state of the art" 1980s, I am so grateful that a few filmmakers, like Friedkin, are left with the chutzpah to deliver movies that are as uncompromising as they are wildly entertaining.
For me, William Friedkin makes "feel good" movies.
Movies like The King's Speech to single out one especially execrable example of my worst celluloid nightmare, doesn't make me feel good at all. In fact, it gave me piles. If anything, when I see a movie that scares the shit out of me or drags me through mud AND is brilliantly and stylishly rendered, I feel mighty fine, indeed!
In addition to Friedkin and a few others, I often use Ulrich Seidl's Dogdays as an example of my idea of a "feel good" movie - one which wallows in the most grotesque human depravities, cruelties and all manner of nastiness and, in fact, has far more HUMANITY than a million King's Speech-type movies.
Is Friedkin, then, a humanist? Well, perhaps not in the Jean Renoir sense - though give me some time, and I could potentially argue that - but as horrific, harrowing or violent his work is, he does, much like the aforementioned Austrian madman Seidl find humanity in all manner of extreme human behaviour.
And in the case of Killer Joe, Friedkin also makes us laugh, which is the cherry on that particular sundae, gloopy-glopped ever-so generously with the syrup of White Trash depravity.
Besides, there are genuine "feel-good" pictures in the traditional sense that don't serve the empty calories offered-up by crap like The King's Speech. Frank Capra, for example, has often been wrongly chastised (mostly by assholes trying to be clever) as doling out sentimental globs of "Capra-corn". Nothing could be further from the truth within the context of his best movies.
Yes, It's a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Lady For a Day and Mr. Deeds Goes To Town to name just a few of Capra's "feel-good" efforts, are all infused with traditional elements of "feel good", but his characters and the audience are dragged through so many beds of hot coals to get there that we earn the right to feel good.
Even more interesting to me, though, is that I often feel Capra delivers a dual-edged sword on this front. Yes, WE usually feel good, but part of me wonders how his protagonists have truly been affected by the suffering they've gone through and the seemingly insurmountable hurdles they've had to mount - which they sometimes slam upon legs wide open, their scrotums and pudenda rendered to so much bruised pulp as they scramble to get back in the race of survival and eventual triumph.
Last month I had the pleasure of reading a fine piece on Friedkin by Olivier Père in "Cinema Scope" magazine. During the interview, Mr. Friedkin and Père had the pleasure, if you will, of being interrupted by two female diners. The two bovine gorgers had been eavesdropping on the conversation and for reasons known only to these busybodies, they jumped into the fray and chimed in on what movies are truly the best. "Movies that make people feel good, like The King's Speech," said one of the taste-deprived cud-chewers.
Once the ladies vacated the immediate vicinity, Friedkin made the following remarks to Mr. Père:
"These perfectly normal American women probably have an education, and are gainfully employed, but I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. The movies they liked, 'feel-good movies,' are fucking awful, beyond stupid, like Sex and the City. I don’t want to make films for these stupid women; I don’t care what they like or don’t like. I don’t respect their opinion; that is not an audience that wants to be challenged; they just want to 'feel good.'
Thank Christ Friedkin still makes movies. The brilliant Killer Joe features, among many audacious humanist activities, a femme fatale type forced at gunpoint to perform fellatio upon a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
That's pretty goddamned feel-good if you ask me.
Besides, who in their right mind wouldn't prefer forced chicken leg fellatio over a stuttering King taking forever to do his fucking job and deliver his goddamned speech or crass pre-menopausal consumption from a bunch of really grotesque actresses wearing expensive clothes?
Part of me wishes I could take those two aforementioned diners who interrupted Friedkin's interview with their bovine cud spewing and strap them into chairs, their eyes forced open with A Clockwork Orange-styled clips on their eyelids and enema hoses shoved deep up their butts while they're forced repeatedly to watch Cruising.
There's some mighty fine feel-good in that!
The bottom line remains the same.
Friedkin's output right from the beginning of his feature film career to the present day is proof positive of his greatness.
His early work is, to say the least, diverse. The Sonny and Cher movie Good Times is a bit of a mess, but it's amiable and entertaining in that lovely 60s/70s "head film" way. The Night They Raided Minsky's might, for some, be a bit overwrought, but it's got plenty in the way of good laughs.The Caretaker is still the best Pinter on film - bar none and continuing his streak of stage to screen adaptations, The Boys in the Band feels dated to some, but only because contemporary audiences usually have a hard time swallowing the painful in-the-closet self-loathing not uncommon for that era. Here as well, Friedkin's direction is dazzling. It's a marvellous pre-cursor to his canon of films involving claustrophobic spaces.
The French Connection is one of the greatest cop thrillers of all time. With a cinema verite style it jangles the nerves in ways similar films can only dream of.
Still the scariest film ever made, The Exorcist balances shocks with quiet Val Lewton inspired creepy crawly terror. The French Connection and The Exorcist are bonafide masterpieces of cinema and it sure doesn't get more feel-good than chasing down heroin dealers and doing battle with Satan.
Sorcerer is a passionate, audacious and thrilling remake of Clouzot's Wages of Fear. It's so intense and dangerous one suspects it represents the work of a certifiable madman.
Are there, perhaps, a few movies in the Friedkin canon that don't quite cut the mustard? Of course. The Brink's Job feels like it was destroyed by the studio, but has so many individual moments of greatness, especially from it's top-flight cast, that it might be due for some reassessment as a flawed masterwork. And yes, I'll say it - Deal of the Century, The Guardian and Jade all stink. Big deal. Capra, Ford, Cukor - the list goes on - all made a few stinkers. Besides, making a few stinkers can be bracing.
Cruising is a bonafide masterpiece. This absolutely terrifying and vicious thriller about a serial killer targeting gay men amongst a small NYC subculture was vilified at the time of its release by gay rights organizations. It's hardly homophobic, though I'd say the movie is definitely audacious and incendiary on a number of levels which place it well at the top of the heap of 70s policiers. Oh, and it really does scare the shit out of you.
To Live and Die in L.A. is a cop-crime picture that kicks mega-ass, comes close to the perfection of The French Connection and has a sympathetic psychopathic villain who makes the corrupt, nasty psychopathic cops far more insidiously evil. Along with Michael Mann's Manhunter, it's also a perfect rendering of the creepy emptiness of the loathsome 1980s.
Rampage still has one of the most powerful courtroom sequences in movie history when the prosecutor forces everyone to pay attention to the ticking clock for the amount of time a victim of torture takes to eventually die - no overt violence in the film (save for some horrendous stuff early on), but the whole picture is creepy, scary and sickening all the same. This overlooked and underrated movie is damn close to being a masterpiece. Oh, and it's unapologetically a pro-capital-punishment film. How more feel-good can a picture get?
Rules of Engagement and The Hunted are both solidly directed action pictures and Blue Chips is a terrific sports picture - one of the best, in fact. These all feel slightly like gun-for-hire efforts, save for clear dollops of Friedkin's distinctive voice as well as levels of proficiency that most directors will never rise to.
The first two-thirds of Bug are perfect and even the final third which, for me, is a bit of a wheel-spinner, is still damned entertaining. Friedkin's first collaboration with writer Tracy Letts is a tour-de-force two hander with Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd and more paranoia in 90 minutes than all the years put together of Art Bell on the radio waves.
And what, pray tell, of Killer Joe?
Every fucking frame of Killer Joe made me feel good to be alive.
"Buoyant", I believe, is the word I used.
Killer Joe (2011)
dir. William Friedkin
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church, Juno Temple
Review By Greg Klymkiw
"I don't think I'll have to kill her. Just slap that pretty face into hamburger meat."
- Jim Thompson dialogue from Stanley Kubrick's The Killing
At one point during William Friedkin's Killer Joe, an unexpected roundhouse to the face renders its recipient’s visage to a pulpy, swollen, glistening, blood-caked skillet of corned beef hash. Said recipient is then forced at gunpoint to fellate a grease-drenched KFC drumstick and moan in ecstasy while family-members have little choice but to witness this horrendous act of violence and humiliation.
William Friedkin, it seems, has his mojo back. (Not that he ever really lost it, but this movie is so tremendous, it just feels that way.)
He’s found his muse in Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts. The two collaborated in 2007 on the nerve-wracking film adaptation of Bug, a paranoia-laden thriller with Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd. Set mostly within the dank, smoky confines of a sleazy motel room, both dialogue and character was scrumptiously gothic. The narrative was full of unexpected beats, driving the action forward with so much mystery that we could never see what was coming. Bug was one of the most compelling and original works of its year.
Killer Joe is a total whack job of a movie, and delightfully so. I'd also suggest that like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom, Killer Joe is an ideal date movie. If your date isn't into any of these movies, you know he/she is not the guy/gal for you.
Set against the backdrop of Texas white trash, the picture opens with a torrential downpour that turns the mud-lot of a trailer park into the country-cousin of war-torn Beirut. Amidst tire tracks turning into small lakes, apocalyptic squalor and lightning flashes revealing a nasty barking mastiff, a scruffy Chris (Emile Hirsch), drenched from head to toe, bangs on the door of a trailer. When it creaks open, a muff-dive-view of the pubic thatch belonging to his ne'er do well Dad's girlfriend Sharla (Gina Gershon) leads Chris to the bleary-eyed Ansel (Thomas Haden Church).
Chris desperately needs to clear up a gambling debt and suggests they order a hit to knock off his Mom, Ansel’s ex-wife. She has a whopping life insurance policy and its sole recipient is Dottie (Juno Temple), the nubile, mentally unstable sister and daughter of Chris and Ansel respectively. Once they collect, Chris proposes they split the dough.
To secure the services of the charming Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) they need to pay his fee upfront. Father and son propose Joe take a commission on the insurance money once it pays out. This is initially not an acceptable proposal until Joe catches sight of the comely Dottie. He agrees to take the job in exchange for a “retainer” – sexual ownership of Dottie.
Father and brother of said sexy teen agree to these terms, though Chris betrays some apprehension as he appears to bear an incestuous interest in his dear sister.
From here, we’re handed plenty of lascivious sexuality, double-crosses, triple-crosses and eventually, violence so horrendous, so sickening that even those with strong stomachs might need to reach for the Pepto Bismol.
Basically, we’re in territory that shares some might lofty space with the grand master of sleazy, white trash pulp fiction Jim Thompson. Killer Joe is nasty, sleazy and insanely, darkly hilarious. This celluloid bucket of glorious untreated sewage is directed with Friedkin’s indelible command of the medium and shot with a terrible beauty by ace cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.
Friedkin, the legendary director of The French Connection, The Exorcist and Cruising, dives face first into the slop with the exuberance of a starving hog at the trough and his cast delivers the goods with all the relish needed to guarantee a heapin’ helpin’ of Southern inbred Gothic.
This, my friends, is the kind of movie they don’t make anymore.
Trust William Friedkin to bring us back so profoundly and entertainingly to those halcyon days.
Oh, and if you’ve ever desired to see a drumstick adorned with Colonel Sanders’ batter, fellated with Linda Lovelace gusto, allow me to reiterate that you’ll see it here.
It is, I believe, a first.