"I'm a Friedkin fan, but this one let me down," writes Dan Sallitt in a dispatch to the Notebook today, and he pretty well sums up the general consensus, give or take, that Killer Joe, which screened in Competition in Venice (and left empty-handed) before rolling on to Toronto, is no Exorcist (1973) — or French Connection (1971), which happens to be opening today for a 9-day run at New York's Film Forum.
"Playwright Tracey Letts and director William Friedkin seem both a natural pair and way the hell too much together," writes Scott Tobias. "Letts's work is overheated enough without Friedkin turning up the gas. As with Bug, Killer Joe pitches to the rafters, amping up a hicksploitation thriller with unnecessary jolts of savage violence and abuse." Also at the AV Club, Noel Murray: "As a fervent fan of Friedkin, I confess that I miss the director's more action-oriented side, which isn't really any more evident here than it was in Bug."
"Killer Joe puts its cards on the table in almost the opening shot: Gina Gershon, naked, from the waist down." The Guardian's Catherine Shoard: "She's opening the door to to her stepson, Chris (Emile Hirsch), in the trailer she shares with her second husband, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and his daughter, Dottie (Juno Temple). Chris owes men money (we're not bothered with extraneous detail), so he and Pops cook up a plan: they'll bump off Chris and Dottie's mother and cash in her life-insurance policy. But they're bright enough to know they don't have the smarts to pull it off, so they engage the services of the titular hitman (Matthew McConaughey), a cop by day, a contract killer on the side. Trouble is, he wants his fee in advance, or, at least, a retainer. And that's where Dottie — beautiful, naïve, well-named — comes in."
"Complications predictably ensue," writes Neil Young, picking it up from there in the Hollywood Reporter, "in a plot whose convolutions echo the books of Texas's noir master Jim Thompson, whose sleazy-corrupt vibe has informed several Coen brothers outings since their debut Blood Simple. Thompson's Pop. 1280 and The Killer Inside Me center, like Letts's play, on a lethally-inclined police officer. Like Winterbottom's movie, Killer Joe includes sequences of uncompromisingly bloody violence — here Hirsch and Gershon are beaten to messy pulps — and these sit slightly awkwardly with the larkish tone that generally prevails."
"After years of coasting in rom-coms, 2011 has marked, with The Lincoln Lawyer and Bernie, the start of the rehabilitation of Matthew McConaughey," writes Oliver Lyttelton at the Playlist, "and it's more or less come to fruition here: he's absolutely terrific, serving up a potent reminder of why everyone was so excited about him way back in the mid 1990s."
"15 years after he failed off the bat as the next Paul Newman, McConaughey has grown in physical (if not actorly) stature into a strapping cartoon movie star," notes Adam Nayman in Cinema Scope. "If Killer Joe is finally a little less than Bug, it's because its Tennessee-Williams-on-meth contents are more carefully self-contained. Where Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd's spiralling madness and paranoia seemed to connect to something lurking out there in the larger culture, the psychodrama here is neat and tidy even as the surface action gets dirtier and more lurid (you'll never look at chicken wings the same way again). Killer Joe is the Hirsch character's rampaging id, acting out all his secret homicidal/incestuous desires. It's not hard to understand, and it's finally not all that original. But for bruising, full-contact entertainment, this will do — and then some."
"I came to it unfamiliar with Letts's play, which has some following but predates his more refined breakthrough with August Osage County," writes Guy Lodge at In Contention. "[T]his early work calls to mind a rougher, ruder Sam Shepard with its surreptitiously hard moral stance and florid New-Old West idiom, but hasn't much interest in its debased characters beyond their most luridly unattractive actions. Charting the grotesque fallout from a stock dramatic setup…, Killer Joe is funny but pitilessly withering in its evocation of undated Southern blue-collar living, casually peppering its script with curled-lip references to thrift stores and fried chicken. Does it think this ill of all such class members or just this one nasty little family?"
For Screen's Lee Marshall, "this fast-paced and often violent post-recession contract killer film just occasionally betrays the theatrical mannerisms of the play it's adapted from. But Friedkin's confident direction and some tasty performances… help to paper over the odd line of clever off-Broadway stage dialogue." And for Kurt Halfyard at Twitch, "there are so many pleasures in watching this cast doing their thing, I would rather have the crazy on display than simply another retread of Red Rock West or Blood Simple."
Viewing (8'05"). The Guardian interviews Tracey Letts, Emile Hirsch and Juno Temple.
Update: Liddell Entertainment has picked up US distribution rights, reports Nigel M Smith at indieWIRE.
Update, 9/18: "Hyperbolic vileness seems to flow right out of all the characters, and the actors revel in the juicy wickedness of this inspired redneck noir," writes Fernando F Croce for Fandor. McConaughey "unveils a newfound sense of danger in his usual swagger and gives this wild blend of Blood Simple, Baby Doll and Teorema its alarming, pungent center."
"Four decades after its initial release," writes Budd Wilkins in Slant, "William Friedkin's Oscar-sweeper The French Connection remains an electrifying achievement, drawing its high-voltage forward momentum from the collision of semi-documentary procedural, with its based-on-real-events verisimilitude, and downbeat rogue-cop revisionism. Shooting in actual locations wherever possible, and availing themselves of the featherweight handheld cameras that enabled the development of the Direct Cinema movement, Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman put the grit into 'gritty authenticity.' But that's only half the equation. Ernest Tidyman's script tweaks buddy-cop stereotypes by compelling the audience to identify with a bigoted and obsessive loose cannon whose actions grow increasingly questionable, and subverts the tidy moral resolution demanded by genre convention, reflecting a darker, more ambivalent worldview, simultaneously hearkening back to the post-WWII high tide of film noir and resonant with Vietnam-era anxieties and tensions."
"The film's most often reduced to its precedent-setting, breakneck car chase, but director William Friedkin's innovation is in making the whole film just as kinetic," writes Vadim Rizov at GreenCine Daily. "The French Connection presents a number of future genre tropes in embryo…. Like several other Friedkin films, The French Connection works best as a chase without meaningful context or much dialogue. As in more flawed films, the best moments are wordless (see also: Al Pacino silently floating among New York gays in Cruising, Tommy Lee Jones running after Benicio Del Toro for half the running time in The Hunted). Eliminating the language on the page and upping the adrenaline-kick ante allows Friedkin to express nearly every important conflict visually: the drama changes direction when the people being pursued do. The brisk tempo of that race through city streets is applied to nearly every scene, so that like Popeye, it doesn't stop to think when shooting: it just embraces the thrill of non-stop motion and violence."
Alt Screen rounds up more reviews, old and new.
Update, 9/15: "One way for a star actor to expand his range is to play a riff on his basic character in a strategically different context," writes Time's Richard Corliss. "McConaughey has lately given evidence he could be an avatar of Paul Newman — specifically, Newman as Hud, the rancher dude with acres of Texas charm and not a square foot of scruples. He played that card smartly in The Lincoln Lawyer; here, his Joe is totally bad and quite possibly mad, but McConaughey employs the same effects as in his romantic comedies. He uses his sotto-voce musicality for threats instead of wooing, but he speaks to his prospective clients about a murder as he would to a pretty girl about dinner and a movie. Of the five characters in Killer Joe he's the sickest and the most comfortable in his role: whispering master to the family's wailing, pathetic slaves. A McConaughey male, in any movie, always thinks he should be on top."
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