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Feature


Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a Dallas detective who doubles as a hit man with the charm of a southern gentleman. Chris (Emile Hirsch) hires Joe to kill his mother in order to collect her life insurance and pay off his debts. Unable to pay for the service upfront, Joe takes Chris’ sister, Dottie (Juno Temple,) as a retainer until he can be paid. (From Lionsgate’s official synopsis)

Killer Joe
William Friedkin burst onto the Hollywood scene with his fifth feature – a European-inspired, rough & tumble, cinéma vérité cop classic called The French Connection. Riding a wave of critical acclaim (including some Oscars), he adapted William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, which went on to become one of the biggest blockbusters of all time (number nine if inflation is taken into account). There was only one place to go from such heights – straight down. Besides a couple of interesting crime flicks ( Cruising and To Live and Let Die in LA), Friedkin’s post- Exorcist career was defined almost entirely by disappointment, both in terms of creativity and box office numbers. The director began the ‘00s with a pair of undistinguished thrillers ( Rules of Engagement and The Hunted), then finally broke out of his rut with Bug – a love-it-or-hate-it comedy/horror/melodrama hybrid that dispensed with his usual hyper-realism in favour of a stagy-looking, (nearly) single-environment set, expressionistic lighting schemes, and a micro-sized cast. It seemed too much to hope for Friedkin, now in his 70s, to make a full comeback, but after a five year break he came back with Killer Joe – another stagy, quirky, love-it-or-hate-it comedy/horror/melodrama hybrid based on another of writer Tracy Letts’ plays.

Killer Joe is the unmistakable follow-up to Bug on just about every level that it almost requires a double-feature treatment. Besides obvious clues, like the pairing of director and writer, Friedkin makes very similar stylistic and tonal choices. These choices are made largely out of necessity, but he regularly shapes his confines to his artistic advantage, striking a singular balance between remaining true to the stage origins and fully embracing the advantages of film. Friedkin breaks out of the smaller scope of a stage play sometimes and moves his characters through a vivid series of locations. A good example of this is towards the beginning of the film, where Chris discusses his plan with his dad (Thomas Haden Church) on a trip to the strip club through a series of cuts. This discussion could’ve and likely would’ve been told in a single sitting onstage, but, in an effort to partially hide the story’s origins (the play reportedly takes place entirely on a single set), Friedkin makes it into something entirely filmic. However, this is the exception to the rule. Even a sequence where Chris is chased by motorcycles plays out mostly with sound and culminates in a single location. Other particularly theatrical camera moves (zooms, extreme close-ups, quick cuts) appear to be made with Friedkin’s tongue planted firmly in cheek. Assuming I’m reading things correctly, this subversive imagery is nicely married with Letts’ dialogue and storytelling style, which blends organic truism with wacky characterizations and unusual poetry.

Killer Joe
Like Bug, Killer Joe dives into the spiraling madness of eccentric characters and does it without a lot of judgment. There’s certainly a freak show element to the whole thing and no mistaking the disturbing quality of the subject matter, but these people, even the horrible ones (which most of them are), are continuously demonstrated as relatable human beings. The relatable quality comes in handy during the extended climax, where things go a little, shall we say, ‘dark.’ The first hour of the film is really just a means to set up the final sequences with a tonal and emotional basis. I believe the finale would still be a pretty powerful mix of manic performance and disturbing imagery without the context, but there’d be little suspense, little reason to care about the outcome, and little reason to laugh at the ironic insanity of it all. Though it didn’t get much of a wide release, Killer Joe did earn some notoriety for garnering an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. This Blu-ray features the same cut that was handed the NC-17, but, for whatever reason, it is marked as ‘unrated’ (there is also an R-rated cut for the Blockbuster crowd, as if that matters anymore). As per the norm, the rating appears to have more to do with sexuality than violence. There’s a lot more frank nudity here than in the average sexually-charged thriller and even the most mundane of the film’s sex has a skin-crawling quality, including suggestions of pedophilia and incest. Then there’s that extended climax, which I’d rather not talk about. Because so much of the ‘objectionable’ material is tonal or an integral part of the last 20 minutes of the film, I’m actually very curious about what was cut to get an R.

In keeping with the Bug comparisons, Killer Joe features another conservatively-sized cast of major characters. This gives them a proper chance to shine. Matthew McConaughey has had a particular good year between this and Magic Mike (for which he may get an Oscar nomination). Personally, I see this as the more interesting of the two performances, but there is a shared moral ambiguity and cool charm between the characters. Emile Hirsch was a particularly promising talent following Into the Wild and Milk, but, when Speed Racer flopped (undeservedly), he reportedly fired his agent and found his way into crap roles in bad movies, like Darkest Hour and Savages. This role isn’t particularly thankful, Chris is a worthless and occasionally whiney little weasel throughout the film, but like Joe, he’s likable beyond his basic actions. Juno Temple (daughter of music video director Julien Temple) hasn’t had a major Dakota Fanning/Saoirse Ronan-level breakout just yet (she’s older than she looks – 23), but if she keeps making good, eclectic choices like this, she’ll certainly outlast her competition if she keeps taking chances on projects as peculiar as this. Dottie isn’t necessarily the lead character, but she’s absolutely the vulnerable and loveable center of the film -– a sort of ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ as filtered through the film’s occasionally terrifying, trailer-trash lens. Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon don’t surpass expectations, but that’s not a bad thing when they make it so easy to expect so much from them.

Killer Joe

Video


Killer Joe was shot using Arri Alexa cameras, which I believe marks it as Friedkin’s first foray into digital HD cinema. This 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer shows off the format with an incredibly clean and incredibly colourful image. Friedkin and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel embrace the clarity of digital without giving up the director’s usual penchant for grit. The palette here is similarly stylized to Bug, including sequences entirely bathed in a single hue, specifically blue. These blue sequences are wonderfully vibrant without blocking or bleeding effects into their fragile white and pink highlights. Nighttime interiors tend to feature a mix of this consistent blue and a golden-orange blend, supported by deep blacks and more vivid highlights. Daytime sequences are also mostly stylized (there’s a subtle ‘candying’ effect on the production design hues), but Friedkin and Deschanel sneak in a few incredibly life-like exteriors that are slightly uncanny in their clarity. Even more impressive are the mixed shots, where characters and other elements escape the hyper-stylized colours and contrast them with perfectly natural hues (skin tones, especially). Details are very crisp without edge haloes or other noticeable sharpening effects. There’s a slight digital softness to some shots and the backgrounds are occasionally pointedly out of focus, but the separation of elements is pristine and the textures are salient. The darkest of the dark scenes feature a little bit of dancing digital noise and slightly mushy details, but, overall, this is a fine, fine-looking transfer.

Killer Joe

Audio


This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack isn’t particularly outstanding, but only because aggressive noise isn’t really an important part of Killer Joe’s sound design. The sound of eerie silence and clarity of dialogue takes precedence, while effects work is mostly devoted to precise, slightly over-cranked little items, like the crunch of teeth through fried chicken or the click of Joe’s lighter. The occasional aural highlights include immersive, bombastic thunder and rain effects, a noisy strip club sequence, a brief, dynamically contrasted motorcycle pursuit, and a pretty bassy explosion. Once again, workhorse composer Tyler Bates has written the score for a Lionsgate release. This score blends a cool Southern-fried rock sound with a sort of mid-‘80s approach to generic thriller music, which fits the film’s irony-laced approach and helps fill out the stereo and surround channels when the mix feels a little too thin.

Killer Joe

Extras


The extras begin with a commentary from Bill Friedkin himself. Friedkin is always a delight to listen to on a commentary track, but is also not particularly good at filling said track with valuable information. He’s also usually very loud. This track sees Mr. Loud coming to the table better-prepared and may be the best or at least most informative track he’s ever recorded. In the past Friedkin had huge problems doing little less than narrating the on-screen events, but he makes a basic effort to even be screen-specific with his comments this time, which is a wonderful change of pace. This is the oral history of Killer Joe, beginning with Friedkin’s work with writer Tracy Letts on Bug, his hesitation with the project based on its subject matter, Letts’ place on the production (it sounds like Letts’ script was pretty specific), the history of plays on film, developing characters through visuals, shooting on location, sound design, Bates’ music, and the difficulty of filming some of the more shocking sequences. I think my favourite part of the track is a piece where he discusses turning his back on over-rehearsing and shooting excessive takes, both processes he was once famous/notorious for. He goes off on tangents and even rants, mostly concerning the ratings board, but this is to be expected from a 77-year-old guy that has been in the business since the early days of the MPAA rating board. Also, he’s William Friedkin – if he isn’t ranting about something, he’s not doing his job. The best of these rants is on the pertinent subject of films provoking violence.

Up next is Southern Fried Hospitality: From Stage to Screen (25:40, HD), a look at the film’s history. This featurette covers Letts’ original story, the difficulty of adapting it to screen, casting, character motivations, Friedkin’s direction, and dealing with the controversial ‘chicken scene.’ It includes interviews with Letts, Friedkin, and actors Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, and Juno Temple. The extras also feature a Q&A with the Letts, McConaughey, Hirsch, Gershon, and Deschanel (39:30, HD), a video intro from Friedkin (3:40, HD) – both extras taken from the film’s SXSW premiere – a redband trailer, and trailers for other Lionsgate releases.

Killer Joe

Overall


Hey, budding fan-fiction writers: we need a Killer Joe/ Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation crossover where it turns out that Joe and Vilmer Slaughter (both played by Matthew McConaughey) are either brothers or the same dude. Get on it! The rest of you: if you’ve got the stomach for a shocking conclusion and an oddball sense of tone, I highly recommend at least renting Killer Joe. It’s an entertaining and unique experience unlike any other American film I’ve seen this year. This Blu-ray disc looks fantastic, including brilliant colours and hyper-clean details. It also features a crisp, low-key DTS-HD MA soundtrack and possibly the best commentary track that director William Friedkin has ever recorded.

* Note: The image on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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