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Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2012)

September 28, 2012

Despite being one of the most important filmmakers around, the last works of William Friedkin didn’t get the attention they deserve. Both Bug and Killer Joe are little masterpieces, and the proof that Friedkin, in comparison with other directors, still has something to say, and knows how to say it. Thanks to the collaboration with playwright Tracy Letts, who wrote both the stage versions on which the movies mentioned before are based and the screenplays, Friedkin has adopted a different style from his previous works. Nothing really innovative or experimental, but rather the opposite. The style closely follows the narrative aspects, leaving almost nothing to what isn’t useful to the plot. But while in Bug the theatrical origin was evident, both in the number of the actors and the single location, in Killer Joe Friedkin chooses a broader approach, where each of the numerous characters is perfectly delineated in his own way. Apart from the number of characters, it’s usually the low number of locations that identifies a movie that is based on a stage play. Killer Joe, instead, develops its plot within a wide variety of places, and each one successfully portrays  the exaggerated white trash, hillbilly environment in which the story takes place.

Tracy Letts, although American, is often considered part of In-Yer-Face Theatre, which comprehend the most controversial stage plays produced in England during the ‘90s, along with acclaimed playwrights such as Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and Anthony Neilson. Killer Joe was his first play, written in 1993 and generally acclaimed, despite being one of the most violent and controversial plays ever staged. Despite ten years have passed, it still has that raw strength and that gritty humor that makes it work so perfectly. The large amount of violence, both in actions and dialogues, is taken to the extreme. Each character seems like a cartoon version, a parody of himself. But let’s be clear, despite being openly over-the-top, the story is still dead serious. There’s no space for post-modern irony: violence isn’t desensitized by itself. For example, in any movie by Tarantino, violence is almost portrayed as funny, it never shake the audience because it rarely serves a purpose, rather than being there for the glorification of violence itself. Here, the shock doesn’t come from violence, but within the ease with which violence is accepted by the characters, that don’t seem to have any kind of morals. There’s no positive figure in this dark barroom tale, a mixture of Southern Gothic, Williams and Faulkner, with lots of dirt, mud and blood more.

As expected, much of the action takes place in the dialogues, perfectly crafted and fast-paced, filled with subtle wit and black humor. The action scenes aren’t missing, but they’re not in the same vein as those from The French Connection or else. Here, everything is projected into a domestic environment, causing the bursts of violence to be even more disturbing. The highlight of the film is the surprising Matthew McConaughey, mostly known for being casted in the majority of last years’ romantic comedies. The creepiness of the film is mostly due to his interpretation of Killer Joe, so convincing that the part seems written especially for him. But everything works perfect also because every other actor involved gives his best. It’s rare that everyone involved fits their role in such way. Emile Hirsch, famous for his role in Into the Wild (2007), Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Curch, Gina Gershon and even the minor characters who gets few minutes on the screen: they all do a wonderful job. It’s difficult to examine them individually though, because it’s in the interactions between characters that the power of the screenplay relies.

It may sound strange, but Killer Joe functions as a twisted morality play. If it weren’t so realistic, despite the over the tone characterization, I’d almost say it shares some elements with the theatre of absurd: the way words lose their significance, the surreal situations that result, the final climax that bursts in a highly disturbing and distorted scene, all elements that reminds me of Harold Pinter‘s theatre. And after all, it’s not a coincidence if Friedkin directed Pinter’s The Birthday Party at the beginning of his career. But remember that all this elements are mixed within the thriller genre and supported by a coherent and classic plot.

Critics didn’t pay attention to Friedkin’s last movies, mostly because they’re still thinking about The Exorcist and The French Connection. Well, if he moved on, so should they. The collaboration with Tracy Letts resulted in two great movies, which Friedkin successfully transposed without losing nothing of the stage versions’ strengths, and also creating a product that is stylistically perfect in its simplicity, in comparison with today’s American cinema, which mostly relies on fast editing and deafening audio effects, cheap tricks that divert the viewer’s attention from the lack of cleverness behind the camera. This is not the case. And by the way, you’ll never look at fried chicken the same way again.

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