Let’s forget endorsement of torture for a bit (I know, I know I haven’t said a word on Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained yet – I’m so behind on everything). A thin line that filmmakers are often forced to tread when making films that’s even more than representing race and torture “accurately” is deciding how far to go when representing the lives of fools on screen. When a film’s machinations depend on plot points being developed because of some innocuous error courtesy of a foolish character, it’s a difficult matter of ensuring that that imprudent act of a single character does not destroy the plausibility of the entire film. In this era where film conversation is veering closer and closer into scrutiny for plot-holes it’s a dangerous game when any individual dubiousness in a character is considered to be a shortcoming of the film.
Both Killer Joe and Killing Them Softly have plot points which depend crucially in believing that the characters in these films are foolish enough to perform some of the most preposterous of actions. William Friedkin and Andrew Dominik are both trudging through social observations in their respective films zeroing in on some decidedly trashy characters. But, it’s not only in their focus on good fools that Freidkin and Dominik are playing in similar registers. Both films survey – in some regard – the world of assassins using the job as windows to tell significantly parodic stories on the idiocy of human life.
Killer Joe: directed by William Friedkin; written by Tracy Letts
“I heard y'all talking about killing mama. I think it's a good idea.”
That line being uttered by arguably the most sympathetic character of the film tells you one of the most important thing about Killer Joe. It’s a film about vaguely despicable people doing definitely despicable things and where the film immediately threatens to repel is by not having much of a centre to it. Is the despicability a symbol of something deeper that lurks beneath? Not really. Letts and Friedkin are comfortably just wallowing in the mucky lives of these people for a hundred minutes and the only true objectionable thing about the filmmaking in Killer Joe is that its ultimate existence is wrested form the most trivial of pursuits, it doesn’t have much to pronounce on anything with significance. But, what it lacks in momentousness it makes up double in application. Considering that the film is essentially a glimpse into the hearth of seediness it’s an expertly made glimpse that unfold with vivid style.
Adele, the mama of the quote, is a woman who no one will miss – it seems – and when her son Chris falls out with some thugs an unwise idea of killing her for her insurance money begins to germinate in his head. Chris and his lethargic father are taken with the idea of hiring the eponymous Joe for the job, and unable to pay collateral grudgingly prostitutes his sister, instead. Incidentally, this all sounds much more sordid than it unfolds – vivid performances, snappy editing, a constant forward thrust we never dwell on the most unsavoury aspects of the piece even as we wallow in other cruel bits. It’s no surprise that from that premise where Killer Joe goes is to a nasty turn on the comedy of errors type. The comedy is of the thinnest variety providing legitimate moments of moments of levity, but all of them doused in the cruellest of things. What keeps the film buoyant despite its nasty overtones and its lack of a momentous centre is the gusto with which it’s presented. If the film seems to have no definable point regarding thematic reach, its purpose can be extracted as opportunity for its five principal actors to sink their teeth into roles of deep-fried, trailer trash flavour. Which is to say that, yes, the film could principally be an actors’ showcase.
I saw could because Friedkin – never famous for stepping back – ensures that the film (at least) vacillates between being a film an actors’ film and a director’s one. The union of Friedkin and the cast ensures that what could just be a trudge through a trashy, redneck experience becomes….well, still a trashy, redneck experience but one which grips you. The audience fills in the blanks of questions which are only hinted at – like the depth of the relationship between Chris and his slow sister Dottie (a mentally underdeveloped child, presumably by ill-treatment from her mother), or the reason for Ansel’s lack of zest. Is Dottie an otherworldly sprite (Temple is so effective teasing us with the ever changing performance)? The film ultimately does not care and as it hurtles into that sometimes-hard-to-watch but enthralling final third, a lack of depth does not diminish enjoyment. If the plausibility of those final twists give you pause (specifically, the killing of a particular character), the force of their effort make the doubts dissipate.
...thoughts on Killing Them Softly and its relationship to Killer Joe below the jump...
Killing Them Softly: directed and written by Andrew Dominik
Like in Killer Joe things in Killing Them Softly are set in motion when stupid people do stupid things. Dominik might tease you with the idea that almost buffoon Frankie and definite buffoon Russell can pull off a high level robbery. The meat of the story unfolds when hitman Jackie Cogan gets brought in to find and dispose of whoever was responsible for a sum of money from a small-scale gambling enterprise. Deliberate and effective in every frame Killing Them Softly is immediately interested in using the small scale seedy world of the criminal enterprise as an allegory to represent (American) capitalism Dominik’s film is immediately lighter and lither than Killer Joe. It’s possibly because as the camera zooms out and leaves the conventionally safe haven of the family for society, we’re less concerned with the specifics of the characters’ demises. There are great arguments to be made about the state of the criminal world in Killing Them Softly being indicative of society’s fall but what the film seems to suggest for the male sex intrigues me even more.
The predicament of men (the existence of that being predicament resting at their own feet) and the ways they foolishly go about absolving themselves of that predicament is a basic explanation of how the film comes off to be, which if you ponder on it is not unlike what Dominiks’ The Assassination of Jesse James was all about. With the exception of the incredibly savvy Cogan, Killing Them Softly is populated with imprudent thugs. From the first moment we meet Scoot McNairy’s shifty Frankie we sense a man whose every actions reeks of desperation. He’s the one who emanates it most palpably but the undercurrent of desperation (or depravity, or both) leading disaster is flagrant. Even as Dominik is never explicitly interested in making us care for the fate of the character he’s just as careful to never mock or condescend to them. If Killer Joe is an exploitation film, then Killing Them Softly is simply a sly, subtle dark satire toeing the line but never becoming an exercise in the exploitative. It’s because the film is so short (it feels shorter than its ninety minutes), cerebral and casually brutal (but not too nasty about it) the machinations that abound are so entertaining to espy and feel so inevitable we don’t have time to mourn about who ends up with a raw deal.
Even as the characters partake in acts of startling foolishness the actors toe the line in making us believe in the stupidity so that it avoids becoming the lampoon (albeit, effectively so) that Killer Joe is. It’s bizarre then that even when the most charismatic of characters in the film are the likes of those you wouldn’t want to meet in the film McNairy goes one step further by making his whezy, edgy robber almost poignant in his naiveté. It’s little individual tics from the actors, or small but effective technical things (the sound editing in the film’s opening sequence for example) that make Killing them Softly such an effective whole. Like Killer Joe it might not have anything definitive to add to the conversation on anything, really but Killing them Softly feels fuller, richer. Its conceits are leading somewhere, its sharpness not just for show and its denouement startling but not unsatisfying.
Both films end with a cliff-hanger of sorts, Killer Joe’s final image is excellent and Killing them Softly has a perfect final line. I’m fonder of where Dominik chooses to wrap up his exercise in style because the gamut of everything learned in Killing them Softly endorses the cool abruptness with which it leaves us. The situation with Killer Joe, like much about the film, is much thornier. Temple’s fine performance aside, Dottie is the film’s most problematic character especially as her motivations are so opaque. The focus on her hand moving back to the trigger suggests otherwise but the characters seem fated to live out the rests of their lives under Joe. As much as Dottie’s (how’s that for symbolic names for Dottie is very dotty) loopiness seems indicative of her being at a higher level than the rest, she seems doomed like Sharla to live the rest of her life as a tool for her men. Films with these abrupt endings shouldn’t end abruptly for tricks but for effect and it’s a credit to both Friedkin and Dominik that when it’s all over we’re left jolted, but also ponderous probing for the “then what” of the stories.
Which gun-toting hero do you prefer? Joe in Killer Joe or Cogan in Killing Them Softly? What excellent ensembles in both films, though, right?