60 Second Movie Review: Killer Joe (2011)
August 22, 2012 6 Comments
It’s an old joke, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve had a poor memory. Blogging is great for that, as I can write what I recall in the moment, and then let it go into the ether. If I forget what I thought of an old movie or TV show, I can use the Google instead of my brain. Unfortunately, when I saw Tracy Letts’ play Killer Joe at the Renegade Theatre Experiment almost two years ago, I didn’t write a review, so I can’t compare the film in great detail. I’ll have to stick closely to the movie with these reactions, which assess the film as a whole, definitely wandering on occasion into spoiler territory.
Killer Joe contains some remarkable violence and objectification of women. As in, stuff that goes beyond your typical Hollywood fare. That’s part of the point, and we get to it quickly.
The stage play opens with Sharla Smith bottomless, opening the door to admit her stepson Chris. It’s a moment (and a merkin) designed to shock the audience into laughter and realize that they are not watching standard middle-class fare. On screen, though, it’s shot as more standard fare — just enough to titillate, but not enough to challenge. The same applies to Joe’s nudity a little more than halfway through, and the strip club scene makes the movie less unconventional than the play. Only Dottie’s nude scene has the same impact on film as on stage, because it comes in relation to her brother or due to Joe’s manipulation and the audience is not allowed to relax, given the malice in the air.
As horrific as it is, I prefer abuse that makes the audience uncomfortable, as opposed to the disingenuous tactics of shows like Law & Order SVU, which portray misogyny from just enough of a distance so that we can cluck our tongues while enjoy the aestheticized thrills. It’s more than a wee bit difficult to achieve an emotional distance from Sharla when she’s being beaten and forced to fellate a chicken drumstick. (And I just discovered that Apple’s spellcheck doesn’t recognize the word “fellate.” Really, Apple? And why did it take me so long to discover this oversight?). I can’t imagine viewers walking away Killer Joe undisturbed.
And yet there’s still a sense that Tracy Letts is offering up these women for consumption without critique. Is that more honest than the Law & Order way? Sure, Dottie takes control at the end, true, but given the social system that’s been portrayed throughout the film, it’s difficult to take that as a moment of redemption or hope. That might an implicit critique of the world in which we live, but I couldn’t help but wish that Letts had challenged this world. Perhaps by more directly challenging the audience to reconsider their own acceptance of abuses of power?
Given Letts background as a member of Steppenwolf, it’s no surprise that his drama allows for some strong acting. For starters, who knew that Matthew McConaughey could be so compelling?
McConaughey avoids all temptations to overact and plays the ickiness to perfection. Really, his willingness to be utterly loathsome is quite rare for a Hollywood star. Gina Gershon is similarly up for being an actor rather than just a pretty face, and is obviously in charge of her craft even while her character is at her lowest.
Thomas Haden Church starts out slow and awkward but eases into his awkwardness as the film progresses, finding a groove that Emile Hirsch never locates. Hirsch’s forced performance takes the air out of many scenes, as he fake limps with artificial determination, ruining what may be the best bruise makeup ever.
Saving the best for last, the stand-out performance belongs to Juno Temple. Really, why have I never heard of her, other than the fact that she’s only 23?
Temple has a skilled naturalness and an ability to plumb the depths with nuance. I only hope we don’t lose her to blockbusters, like we did Jennifer Lawrence after her stunning turn in Winter’s Bone. Winter’s Bone was Shakespearean in its themes and explorations of character. Killer Joe is more like Mamet, full of testosterone and excellently crafted lines, more thought-provoking than most…but I’m still left a tiny bit hungry for what it could have been.
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