Sunday, March 3, 2013


William Friedkin may be the only working filmmaker still capable of giving me the heebie-jeebies.  I’m told his mid-80s-to-early-00s output has been spotty, but it seems he’s found a muse in the Steppenwolf Theatre’s Tracy Letts.  They first joined forces on 2007’s Bug, a pressure-cooker by virtue of its central folie à deux alone, to say nothing of its single-room setting and breathlessly manic monologuing.  With Killer Joe, they recapture much of the same visceral, unrelenting energy for a story that wouldn’t necessarily promise it, of life insurance fraud gone horribly, unavoidably awry .  Like Bug, Killer Joe is Southern-fried noir structured by a series of verbal standoffs alternately seething and shrill but always enthralling.  The Dallas trailer-trash cast’s attempts to outsmart one another proceed on the shaky premise that there’s any intelligence present to thwart.  The lone exception is the eponymous avocational hitman, played with such easy menace by Matthew McConaughey that you wonder if the role, written when he was only just thinking it'd be a lot cooler if you did have a joint, was somehow conceived with him in mind.  Thomas Hayden Church also stands out as the slack-jawed patriarch whose deadpan delivery gets the lion’s share of the film’s laughs.   But here I am talking about performances when all you want to know is whether and how it earns its NC-17, that great slayer of box office prospects.  The answer to the first part is both yes and no.  Yes, it is a nasty, violent piece of work, but not significantly more so than anything else Friedkin has done – certainly not Bug, with its tooth extractions and graphic Foley art thereof.  Sex was clearly the tipping point: Gina Gershon is preceded by her merkin in her first scene, and forced to perform fellatio on fried chicken with a broken nose in her last.  I’m all for according sexual violence the most restrictive of ratings, and besides, I’m certainly no Puritan, but I must echo Roger Ebert’s thoughts from his (positive) review of the film: if anything can earn this dubious honor, shouldn’t violence alone?  Absent a sufficiently coherent Other against which to classify itself, as pornography provides film vis-à-vis lusty bodies, it likely never will.  All the squirmy moralist deep inside me is left to do is throw his hands high, resigned, sigh, and surrender to Friedkin's resolutely amoral, skin-crawling thrills.  I can think of worse fates.