|Watch out! McConaughey's about to act!|
I confess. I read a review of Killer Joe before I saw it. Not something I normally do. But my interest was crack addict high as I overheard theater workers murmuring something about fried chicken fellatio. And so it was in this state that I searched Film Comment for their take on William Friedkin’s latest. Emile Hirsch and Thomas Hayden Church are always good for a quick trip to the theater, but add in the tender presence of one Matthew J. McConaughey and Gina Gershon, an actress for whom the phrase “effervescent aroma” seems coined in heaven, and it didn’t matter what Film Comment or Variety said, I had to be there. And Juno Temple, where had I heard of her?
Before we get to Temple and whether I should have remembered her performance as Queen Anne in Paul W.S. Anderson’s abysmal take on The Three Musketeers, let me tell you something. The fact that the Film Comment review fails to mention the raw animalistic qualities displayed by McConaughey and Temple is what we call in the trade missing the big point. The review did mention McConaughey’s “15 year Rip Van Winkle act” from any film that we might call remotely good, as well as an eight-page memo the screenwriter, Tracy Letts, sent to Friedkin that demanded: “Don’t be afraid of the pussy.” I say this only for you to understand the frame of mind I was in when I entered the theater.
Now stop everything. Let’s back up and take a trip to the Far East, to Hong Kong, the home of Shaw Brothers studios founded in 1930. The studio itself is well known around the world for being perhaps the most distinguished movie studio to ever release a Martial arts film. I bring up the Shaw brothers because they went directly from the live theater to the movies, a cultural migration that had a huge impact on Asian cinema and, most important, how a good many of those films imagined and rendered filmic space. The glorious opening of Eight Diagram Pole Fighter was filmed on a fifty-by-fifty foot sound stage with black painted walls a hundred feet high and lots of fake mustaches for the few stunt men shown dying over and over and over. And you know what? It works. They didn’t need half of New Zealand and a hundred and fifty-person animation team to create the illusion of a grand battle.
Now, at this point you’re wondering, as most potential viewers of Killer Joe are, what has any of this to do with fried chicken fellatio? But for the moment what you need to think about are the spatial relations in film. How a well-framed shot of a trailer makes us feel cramped and stressed and one of a sprawling green countryside makes us forget about the Nazis on the other side of the hill. Conflict is not a matter of massive budgets, scripts based on board games or a hundred other such formulas, but the proper use of space. It’s important to understand this type of precision and technique before we talk about McConaughey and his peculiar use of fried chicken.
Killer Joe begins with Chris (Hirsch) telling his remarried father Ansel (Church) that he is going to kill his mom, Ansel’s former wife, so that he and his sister Dottie (Temple) can split a life insurance policy of fifty thousand dollars four ways. This is so that Chris can pay off some sort of crown jewel of the Dallas underworld he owes six thousand dollars to. He has to split it four ways, because for whatever reason Ansel decides his current wife Sharla (Gershon) deserves a cut. They then hire detective Joe Cooper (McConaughey), he of the insidious moniker, “Killer Joe,” to do the deed.
Being broke trailer trash, they let Joe have Dottie as a retainer for the job until they collect on the insurance. I’m telling you all this not because I want to spoil the plot for you, but because that’s just the first five minutes and then the movie really takes off. The entire decision to kill the mother is a simple means to an end and it being Texas (I suppose) no one so much as blinks an eye at the idea, at least for the moment. All of this dialogue, all five minutes worth is told using a classic film convention of spreading out the conversation over various locations. It is ineffective: it hinders the actors and is a poor use of filmic space. That’s a serious criticism, but should that stop you from running to your local multiplex to catch this sick piece of high art trash? Not one bit, because when Killer Joe finally meets Dottie, within a space that is both incredibly confined and wonderfully cinematic, all our thoughts shoot out the window and we learn just how tawdry star charisma can get.
|Watch out Killer Joe, Dottie's gonna get ya!|
Temple lights up the screen like tungsten meeting a blowtorch. Every word spoken between Dottie and Joe is near perfection and Friedkin knows it. Hell, McConaughey knows it. And we know it by the end of the film. From the moment the words, “momma tried to kill me” slip through Dottie’s lips, we’re hooked. And we stay hooked all the way through to the conclusion when Joe asks, “Who told you that?” and Dottie simply replies, “I remembered it.” The film was originally a play and its only setting was inside that awful little trailer. And every scene of brilliance in this movie occurs there as well. In that cramped, seemingly un-cinematic trailer, Friedkin creates an epic of conflict both individual and vast. So instead of cataloguing the stunningly beautiful lines McConaughey drawls, like “Whose dick is it?” and “Do you want me to wear your face?” let’s discuss Lawless.
Lawless does not have such magical dialogue. It is the third collaboration between director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave, of “Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds” fame. What it does have are the Bondurant brothers of Franklin County, Virgina: three depression era bootleggers who stand by their principles and refuse to “grease the tracks” to keep their business afloat. Instead they drive into a headlong clash with local lawmen and Chicago gangster Charlie Rakes, played by a creepy, and taking a page out of Mara Rooney’s Girl Tattoo actor’s manuel, white eye-browed Guy Pearce, who sidles over to the other side of the law to become Franklin County’s Special Deputy. As the Bondurant brother’s empire grows, all the other distilleries close down until theirs is the only one left standing.
It’s a classic David versus Goliath tale. What is so interesting about this film, besides a stunning performance by Tom Hardy, which consists almost entirely of heavy breathing, glares, and grunts, is Hillcoat’s reduction of sprawling Virginia hillsides into trapped little corners and complex mazes. In the same way that Friedkin uses the trailer in Killer Joe to make us feel cramped and uncomfortable, Hillcoat and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme reduce the onscreen framing by vicariously placing vertical objects in the way of our vision. Pan and scan viewers beware, you will miss this entirely. From the middle of the film to the end, there is rarely a scene where a tree, column, leg or even a shotgun doesn’t reduce the screen size to two-thirds its normal aspect ratio. I found myself, in similar fashion to the infamous phone call scene in Rosemary’s Baby, often shifting in my seat for a better view. Hillcoat pushes this principle to the extreme in the climax, which is shot in an almost entirely lightless tunnel. But for a very small speck of light, we are literally left in the dark as to what happens.
What I find interesting about these films is how they understand and use filmic space to unnerve and control an audience. With decent to great performances by actors, every well-framed shot creates what can only be called visual empathy. Watching these films we identify with the Bondurant brothers and Texas trailer trash, not because of some outward principle or logic that was created by the times we live in or they lived in, but purely by the fact that the moment the outsiders show up, our view, even in a large theater, starts getting smaller and the walls start closing in on us. In the end, we’re all trapped rats and we will band together.
Credit the phenomenal work of the camera operators, the cinematographers and the vision of the directors. And just as we earnestly sit in our theater and feel trapped by the confines of the ever-pressing trailer or tunnel or hillside, we watch as the onscreen characters lives unravel. It is only when we remove ourselves from the darkened theater that we feel some sense of relief from this impending doom. Killer Joe is a film with excellent performances by choice actors and a great script. Lawless has a decent plot and well-worked out scenes, but lacks the crackling dialogue of Lett’s script, despite well-executed performances from seasoned actors. Both films are enjoyable in their own right, but what stands out in both is their brilliant use of filmic space and the impact that space has on our emotions. It might just be technique, but it drives us further into the lives of characters and makes us empathize with people we might have little in common. It’s kind of amazing that that can happen.
©Jordan Minter & CCA Arts Review
©Jordan Minter & CCA Arts Review