Editor's Note: Each week Joe Leydon explores interesting and/or idiosyncratic movies outside of the Hollywood mainstream – be they in massive megaplexes or much smaller venues - in a column called "Mondo Cinema."
Try to imagine Tobacco Road as reimagined by Quentin Tarantino, and you’ll be ready for Killer Joe (at the River Oaks 3), an aggressively outrageous and sporadically unhinged black comedy that Oscar-winning director William Friedkin (The French Connection) freewheelingly adapted from an early play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts (August: Osage County).
Populated with more unflattering Texas stereotypes than you’d encounter during an entire season of Dallas, and abounding with an exuberant sleaziness that might leave a lasting stain on any theater screen where it’s projected, it’s a down-and-dirty guilty pleasure that merits the price of admission simply by showcasing the full-tilt fearlessness of Matthew McConaughey’s mesmerizing performance in the title role.
It’s a down-and-dirty guilty pleasure that merits the price of admission simply by showcasing the full-tilt fearlessness of Matthew McConaughey’s mesmerizing performance in the title role.
Set in and around Dallas – played, in a bold stroke of casting, by New Orleans – Killer Joe is a twisted tale of sex, violence, roiling passion and fried chicken. It’s a dark and stormy night (no, seriously) when ne’er-do-well Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) returns to the trailer park home of his trailer-trash dad, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), and his slatternly stepmom, Sharla (Gina Gershon). Also on the premises: Dottie (Juno Temple), Chris’ younger sister, a virginal beauty whose simple-mindedness may be the result of a years-ago attempt by her (and Chris’) mother to smother her with a pillow.
For all her apparent spaciness, Dottie vividly recalls her near-demise, which may explain her unwillingness to object when Chris – desperate to repay his suppliers after a botched drug deal – suggests cashing in on his mom’s $50,000 insurance policy by facilitating her demise.
Enter “Killer Joe” Cooper (McConaughey), a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a hit man. Under normal conditions, he demands a $25,000 advance for his handiwork. But since nothing in the movie remotely resembles normalcy, he agrees to do the dirty deed on spec – provided he can claim Dottie as, ahem, collateral.
Not since he upstaged Leatherface himself in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (a.k.a The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre) has McConaughey gone as far over the top as he does here with volcanic rages and ravenous scenery chewing.
But here’s the thing: He saves the really wild-eyed stuff for the movie’s final quarter. Most of the time, he commands attention and stokes fears by underplaying the clear and present danger Killer Joe clearly represents, rarely raising his voice and never drawing his gun because, hey, he doesn’t have to. All it takes is the aiming of his stern gaze, or a drawled expression of disappointment or impatience, and other characters shut up, back down, offer profuse apologies and/or consider scampering off to another zip code.
The killer irony, of course, is that until Joe goes all badass and gonzo nutzoid, and starts using a Kentucky Fried Chicken drumstick in an unspeakably crude manner during the scene that likely ensured the movie’s NC-17 rating, he’s actually the most likeable guy on screen.
Even while he’s deflowering Dottie during a not-entirely-consensual close encounter, there’s something curiously refreshing about Joe’s unambiguous motives and straightforward behavior. “Yeah,” he seems to be saying, “I’m a badass, and I’m utterly amoral, and I kill people for money. But at least I’m upfront about it.”
As for the other characters – well, with the arguable exception of Dottie, they’re written and played, quite entertainingly, as cartoonish dolts who fully deserve to come to grief. Their unbridled avarice, bone-deep stupidity and reckless treachery – to say nothing of their pathetically delusional attachment to their self-regarding schemes -- make it difficult to work up much pity or outrage when they are force-fed just desserts.
Which, I strongly suspect, is precisely how Friedkin and Letts want us to respond. Those boys ain’t gonna win any prizes for this enterprise. But they do their damnedest to make you laugh until you’re thoroughly ashamed of yourself.
Way down yonder
Carolyn Parker more or less gate-crashed into the ongoing history of post-Katrina New Orleans when, during a January 2006 public hearing dealing with rebuilding in heavily flooded areas, she feistily responded to Mayor Ray Nagin’s proposal to simply demolish some of the most damaged houses: “Over my dead body!”
Among the many TV newscast viewers suitably impressed by Parker’s impromptu act of defiance: Jonathan Demme, the Oscar-winning director of The Silence of the Lambs, who has divided his time during the past two decades between dramatic features (Philadelphia, Rachel Getting Married) and nonfiction cinema (The Agronomist, Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains, Neil Young Journeys). In Parker’s determined efforts to restore her severely damaged Lower Ninth Ward home, Demme immediately saw an irresistible subject for a documentary. So irresistible, in fact, that he followed the progress of this formidable African-American lady off and on over a five-year period, charting her progress and celebrating her spirit.
In Parker’s determined efforts to restore her severely damaged Lower Ninth Ward home, Demme immediately saw an irresistible subject for a documentary.
The end result: I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful, a consistently fascinating and ultimately uplifting film that will have its Houston premiere at 7:15 pm Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
As my Variety colleague Justin Chang has noted, it’s an altogether worthy addition to the growing body of films about post-Katrina New Orleans, a subgenre that also includes documentaries as diverse as Carl Dean and Tia Lessin’s Trouble the Water (which will have an encore screening Aug. 29 at 14 Pews) and Spike Lee’s epic When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.
Parker proves to be an endlessly and effortlessly charismatic subject, whether she’s preparing fried chicken —with a not-so secret ingredient: pickle juice – in her FEMA trailer, or interacting with her grown children, Kyrah Julian (who cut short her studies at Syracuse University to be with her mom) and Rasshad (who rises up the waiter ranks at the French Quarter’s tony Arnaud’s Restaurant while living in the gutted shell of his mother’s home).
She can be steel-spined when she wants to be, especially when dealing with an untrustworthy home repairman, or leading a movement to keep Catholic officials from closing St. David’s Church, a house of worship long hospitable to African-American parishioners. And she can be downright indomitable when she has to be, while recovering from double knee surgery that only temporarily slows her down.
To be sure, she vividly recalls the bad old days of segregation in New Orleans. (If you’re a Big Easy native of the right age, you may experience an unpleasant shock of recognition when she talks about the separation of races aboard public transportation.) But Carolyn Parker may be the least embittered and most optimistic person you’ll encounter in any movie of any sort this year.
Deep in the heart of Texas
Stranger and arguably more gripping than fiction, The Imposter (at the Sundance Cinema) considers the bizarre story of Nicholas Barclay, a 13-year old San Antonio boy who went missing in 1994, and Frédéric Bourdin, a 23-year-old French con artist who, just a few years after Barclay’s disappearance, managed to pass himself off to the vanished teen’s family as their providentially returned prodigal son.
Filmmaker Bart Layton mixes interviews with participants in this true-life drama – including Bourdin – and staged re-enactments that illustrate the often conflicting testimonies. The result is a provocatively ambiguous film that occasionally echoes Agnieszka Holland’s classic Olivier, Olivier – a fact-based drama about a strikingly similar case in rural France – while contemplating the power of the urge to forge and maintain family ties.
Here, there and elsewhere
Benoit Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen (at the Sundance Cinema) views the beginning of the end of the pampered life of Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) through the eyes of her loyal but increasingly anxious reader (Léa Seydou).
There’s singing, dancing and ass-kicking galore in Kabir Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger (at the AMC Studio 30), a Bollywood-style action-adventure about a hunky Indian superspy (Salman Khan) whose efforts to prevent a sale of missile technology to Pakistan takes him on a globe-trotting journey from Afghanistan to Dublin to Havana.
At the Aurora Picture Show, venturesome cineastes can enjoy Experimental Eye, a cavalcade of animated short films curated by H-Town filmmaker Kelly Sears, who’ll be in attendance for the 8 p.m. Saturday program. Sears promises “a wide range of works from pioneers of the craft to current practitioners who are inventing new visual languages.”
And speaking of animation: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston concludes its Castles in the Sky: Studio Ghibli retrospective with screenings of Hayao Miyazaki’s acclaimed Spirited Away at 4 and 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 and 4:30 p.m .Sunday.