Killer Joe, Saturday night’s headliner, is based on a Tracy Letts play, which director William Friedkin has “opened up” by having characters deliver their dialogue while walking past the various attractions at a strip club, for instance. But it’s very much a play: characters get their mouths around slightly florid vernacular riffs, delivering nonsequitur monologues about fishing on the Red River or their third-grade boyfriend while unlooping their belts or beating each other to bloody pulps with aluminum cans of pumpkin pie filling.
It’s a hick gothic, in which a family of trailer trash—low-level coke dealer Emile Hirsch, slutty stepmom Gina Gershon, and deadpan-dumbass welder dad Thomas Haden Church—plot to kill the always-offscreen mother for insurance money; they commission the titular police officer and moonlighting hitman (Matthew McConaughey) to do the job, and he insists upon a “retainer” (it’s one of those words that the script has the characters repeat back and forth to each other like in a fucking play): access, as it were, to the baby of the family, Dottie (greasy, zonked-out, up-for-anything Juno Temple), the fulcrum of many a vaguely literary-seeming incest intimation. Dottie’s dressed in virginal white, and prone to sleepwalking, spacey declarations, and alternate fits and catatonia; no one seems to notice her visceral appetites.
Friedkin, in Vienna to direct a production of Tales of Hoffmann, sent over a video introduction in which he, in opera house with coffee mug in hand, vamps about Beethoven before finally getting to his movie as a grinning afterthought. His direction is, roughly, on the same wavelength: color-coded lighting, aggressively gratuitous close-ups of battered faces, ironically cheery pop-song cues.
If the film has a saving grace, incredibly, it’s JK Livin himself. McConaughey has never struck me as someone particularly interested in playing against type, but he’s roused to interesting effect here. Dressed all in black, he is, as Dennis Hopper would say, a suave motherfucker; his drawling physicality suggests an eerie control, and indeed portends righteous rage. “His eyes hurt,” says Dottie, in one of Letts’s most effective attempts at brute poetry.
At the Q&A, McConaughey also runs the room, but in a different sense, reverting to his incredibly affable narcissism: tipping a black Stetson, one hand on his hip and one holding the microphone, taking the lead in answering questions but chivalrously tilting it towards Gershon.
Now, as I think I said earlier, one of the jokes this year’s bumpers is the sense of entitlement of questioners at panels. (In the bumper that played before Killer Joe, a derpy questioner, keeps interrupting the director: “If you could kill one of your actors…” In the punchline, he’s removed his shirt and asks if the fimmaker can really tell the difference between himself and McConaughey.) The moderator tonight is “head geek” Harry Knowles, of Ain’t It Cool News, who, upon rolling out at the conclusion of the end credits, greets the crowd with a how-about that: “Now, that’s the kind of movie you always expect to see me at the end of.” As a critic fond of using the term “fanboy” as a club with which to beat a film, it would be hypocritical of me to criticize Knowles for claiming his taste as the obvious primary association for a mode of filmmaker. But it still rankles.
Now. The film’s money scene, there’s no other way to put it, is the extended bit in which McConaughey holds a piece of fried chicken up to his fly, demands Gershon fellate it, and gradually achieves a rough shuddering orgasm as she weepingly performs. It is the subject of Knowles’s first question; Letts allows that he “was not entirely sober” when he came up with it, a joke that absolves me of having to search for a motivation other than smug provocation from this Pulitzer Prize winner (whose script for Bug, so well-directed by Friedkin, I quite enjoyed).
Following up to get more from the actors, Knowles, a morbidly obese bearded ginger nut in a hawaiian shirt, joshes them about playing this totally extreme scene: he tells McConaughey, you seemed to really be getting into it; and you, Gina, “you were sucking it good.” Even allowing for the forced jocular intimacy of the typical film-fest Q&A (the whole purpose of having Knowles there to do it), this strikes me as pretty fundamentally disrespectful, to say nothing of entitled and self-aggrandizing. There’s a certain amount of flesh trade inherent in promoting any movie, and if the line especially bothered anyone onstage they hid it well. But, sorry, getting a laugh is not an appropriate reason to speak to a professional actress like a whore.