William Friedkin’s deliciously fleshy, brazen black comedy Killer Joe is a whole lot more meaningful than its word-on-the-street cred as another film in a long list of newfound career-redefining roles for Matthew McConaughey might suggest, but his performance speaks more than anything to the tone and effect of the movie. He re-reads the laid-back seductive charm he built his career on to play a crawling-king-snake of a Southern devil here, a police detective moonlighting as an assassin as convincingly nasty as he is ruthlessly in-human and clever. He’s the backbone of not only a number of fine performances dancing around his pointedly superficially cool-as-can-be anti-hero (the veterans Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon in particular giving us two commandingly lived-in performances as a husband and wife struggling to get-by), but a damn fine film.
Friedkin’s film is bitingly funny with all manner of acid-spewing centering the film’s dark thrills, but the Southern Gothic decay never lives above its characters – it strives to understand them, even if it’s mocking them a little on the side. It’s a caustic, destructive, deeply anxious film that also manages the difficult task (especially for a modern genre film) of surfacing contradictory perceptions of gender relations and actually deserving both readings. It’s as progressively deconstructive as it is dangerously problematic. It is perhaps completely unsure of its view of women (or anything) in this regard, but it is fascinatingly unsure of itself as it attempts to prod and poke at human relations and realizes it can’t ever fully know what to do with the heated glass menagerie of chaos that is its view of humanity. And that’s a rare, wonderful beast indeed.
Director Steven Soderbergh’s intent is revealed completely in the opening moments, a sultry, fire-breathing Matthew McConaughey speaking to an audience in a strip club with all the theatricality we’d expect. And yet the camera is detached, cold, and distant. Until it finds itself gob-smacked by an even more oppressively clinical title-card “June” introducing us to an opening scene which gives us both male and female nudity, as if contractually obligated to, in the most detached, unerotic way possible, literally revealing the female nudity to be of a mirror image and not a person. The film gloriously subverts its marketing campaign to draw us into its own implicit superficiality and the quotidian, performative artifice of the stripper lifestyle, leaving us with nothing but men putting up their physical image for sale in a job that feeds on their decayed souls, to hide what little humanity they have left underneath. The direction is intentionally distant, with Soderbergh doing little to “involve” us in the stripping.
Plus, as he’s wont to do so, Soderbergh massages out a lead performance in Channing Tatum that blends reality and artifice (the story is based on Tatum’s history as a male stripper), taking Tatum’s somewhat limited ability to its best effect by rendering his wooden, low-key style a commentary on the alienating un-reality of stripperdom. To this extent, the film is also refreshingly impressionistic, keeping us at arm’s length from its characters as we glimpse moments in their lives, rather than shoe-horning in a more “active” plotline which forces events to get in the way of simply living life. It’s a stunningly subversive commentary on the nature of performance – Matthew McConaughey playing a self-reflexive caricatured version of his good ol’ boy image (literally saying his catchphrase “all right, all right, all right” on more than one occasion) is just the icing on the cake.
Director Steven Soderbergh’s first release of 2012 continues the man’s lifelong commitment to deconstructing performance – he casts Gina Carano (a non-professional actor whose day job is as an MMA fighter) as a secret agent who exhibits no humanity or “realism” whatsoever, her woodenness serving as a reflection of the inhuman clinicism of serving as a professional killer and a commentary on the fake action stars of old and present.
Elsewhere, Soderbergh’s archly clinical detachment breathes an icy chill into the truly brutal action scenes, which deconstruct the genre to its vicious, inhuman, artificial roots. Haywire is an action film absent any sense of flow or grandness to its violence– fights erupt before-cue and are over before they register, directed with intentionally overly-stylized, pointed clinicism to keep them at a distance (the same distance they retain to the completely un-emotive and cynical characters). These are detached fight scenes where people hit to kill, not to appeal to an audience, and Soderbergh is out to dare us to enjoy them. To the characters, it’s all work and no play, all performance and no escape, and Soderbegh follows through, asking why we as an audience would enjoy watching such images of brutal beat-downs when they predicate themselves on such inhuman decay. It’s a stunning critique of action filmmaking, with characters who are pawns for a screenwriter and an audience that demands them to engage in violence for their sake; these characters kill but cannot be bothered to display any emotion or interest whatsoever, icons in Soderbergh’s tapestry which veers between anti-action cinema, ur-action cinema, and a pantomime of either of the above.
Silver Linings Playbook
The snarky, caustic title of this post doesn’t quite convey my opinion on the film – it’s a competent act-off piece that maintains a reasonable air of entertainment for around two hours. It features a number of archly one-note characters with performers trying their damnedest to make a jazz-monster out of that note. And it’s first half in particular gives us the chaotically breezy joy of the effervescent sight of watching two negatively-minded people positively destroy each other with verbal abuse (seriously, if this film is aiming to stake its claim in the long-line of classic Hollywood romantic comedies, befitting David O. Russell’s clearly and increasingly populist mindset, he’s at least got the screwball aspect of people being as loud and snarky and mean as they possibly can in front of other people down pat).
It sacrifices a lot of the goodwill it builds up, however, by settling into a somewhat disturbingly twee indie-dramedy routine with a purpose in making dysfunctional people seem fun and cute. And if that isn’t soul-crushing enough, the second half of the film settles into a rote Hollywood formula buoyed by essentially nothing other than the performances (Russell still hasn’t emerged as a meaningful visualist, or rather, he’s lost the ability after all those years ago Three Kings). And it’s all the more shameful upon looking back at the first half, which seemed to be heading to caustically lash out at all the twee indie comedies of the 2000s with vigor by exploring how distant they were from honest humanity. When it eventually reveals itself to be … just another one of those mid-2000s indie comedies, the whole film blows up in its own face.
The end-game borders on colossal failure, unmasking a film that, while reasonably entertaining, amounts to nothing more than an attempt to have its dysfunctional, dangerous commentary on mental illness cake and eat its Hollywood Oscar-baiting crowd-pleaser cake too. In other words, it wants to feign depth and danger rather than jump headfirst into it. Because, you know, it wants to succeed at the Box Office. To this extent, whatever caustic, bitter, angry-brittle human pizzaz it opens up with, it sacrifices to the middlebrow Gods in an ending that’s played like a visual-aural parody of the happy-ending we don’t expect this film to have. Except Russell doesn’t have much interest in satire or snark at this point – he’s playing it straight-faced – and it collapses under its own unearned earnestness. I don’t know about you, but I like to keep my bubbly dance rom-com as far away as humanly possible from my painful dissection of mental disease. I guess that’s one of those pesky preference things, but I have the sneaking suspicion I’m onto something, and I’m sticking by it.
Also of note, the Oscar-winning role for Jennifer Lawrence is for a woefully underdeveloped character who behaves erratically less because of her mental illness than because she’s not really a human-being; she’s a tool for the script-writers to define Bradley Cooper’s main character. It seems Hollywood writers still haven’t figured out how to write female characters, and the film is a rather inexcusable attempt to seem conflicted and complicated without actually having to work for it. It’s a good thing it, at least for the better part of its run-time, knows how to be breezy enough to distract from its laundry list of other issues.