Killer Joe William Friedkin (2011 USA) Matthew McConaughey, Juno
Temple, Emile Hirsh
Viewed: Tyneside Cinema 3 July 2012 Ticket: £6.95
The flat and hollow ring of a Zippo lighter…
Viewing some of William Friedkins’s (WF) output, French Connection, the Exorcist and now Killer Joe, the tangible connection of ‘possession’ runs right through them, in different guises: heroin; the devil; the need for money.
The French Connection and the Exorcist were both expressive visceral instruments of desire. Given form by a one dimensional take on actuality both movies had filmic and structural unity that took their respective tones from the narrow focus of their source material. In both cases these were books: one factual, the other a novel. Killer Joe’s (KJ) origin is as a theatre piece. What we see is WF’s tryst at transposing the form structure and language of a play into a film.
It doesn’t work.
Theatre even as narrative can be a supple layered and coded vehicle for the integration of action and ideas. Theatre works through the medium of the live actor working in the set which seeks to represent reality rather than replicate it. Actors can be both witness and witnessed, open to interaction with the audience or blind to them; actors can, at directorial will, change relationship to their role, playing a part methodically and fully entering character, or employing various distancing techniques and devices to comment on a role rather than playing it. The actor can move easily from self parody to communicated self consciousness for political social or emotional purposes. The switches in an actors key, tone, and relation to role can be sudden like a switchback or ambiguous, finely nuanced. What opens up for the audience in live performance is the possibility of different levels of reading the manipulations with which they are presented.
The decision by WF to structure KJ as a more or less straight narrative with bolted on theatricals makes this transposed adaptation reliant less on the muscular potential of the writing rather almost totally reliant on image exploitation of the usual gratuitous kind: graphic sex and violence, unnuanced by some of the factors that would have characterised the stage version. Stripped of ambiguous nuanced playing and role distancing, all that is left is the banality of literal image.
The movie KJ clearly shows its stage provenance. The play written by Tracy Letts was an off Broadway success in the ‘90’s. From the movie it looks like a typical piece of writing of its era. A sort of sub species of work in the style and form of Sam Shepherd. The typical settings are located in the white trash homelands, often cabins or trailer parks. The plots exude violent menace, black comedy and the absurd in varying quantity and degree, taking their cue from the sort of material to be found in the National Enquirer. Lobsters and psychopaths loom large and the affect of the situations is mediated by a theatrically knowing style of acting out, which has the effect of affectively distancing the player from the role and the action. Action which although realised in intent, is carried through on sets that are representations. In this sense the virtual and the intentional are the dominant features in this theatrical form.
None the less effective in engaging both emotional and intellectual responses.
WF has adapted KJ as a comic book so that the look and feel of the movie conform to this formula. Lurid inked in colours of the settings provide the background against which one dimensional characters play out the mechanics of the scenario. As suggested it is not one dimensionality per se that constrains the affect of the movie; rather it is the actors’ immobility of affect as WF locks them into a stylistic strait jacket as they act out what is a black comedy scenario, without the flexibility of role and gestural responses.
Only extraordinary directors such as Godard have being able to bring to screen this flexibility of thespian role play. And in so doing, plot becomes a relatively minor consideration; movement in itself becomes the driving force.
Without the theatric devices of varying role and stylistic commitment, KJ is exposed as a vacuous narrative shell. Lacking unitary cohesion, it is uncertain of what it is. Characteristic of the mis en scene is the filmicly weak and empty gimmick that eponymous Joe uses to announce his presence: a metallic ring caused by flicking a Zippo lighter cover. It doesn’t work because on film it seems an overdeliberated rhetorical gesture that the actor can do nothing to salvage from pretension.
The narrative is emptied out into a sort of no man’s land of signification: not a black comedy nor a study in contemporary manners, neither a piece of social crit nor a comment on the lunatic boundaries of American belief systems. What’s left is a heavy handed piece of film making, over wrought with theatrical contrivances. The weather the storms and lashing rain; the pole club and the ravenous dog add up to no more theatre effects that work as a sort of proscenium arch to the content.
These difficulties coalesce, coagulate during the chicken leg fallatio scene between Joe and Sharla, late in the film On stage however viciously Joe’s lines might be delivered, the audience would always be conscious of and in control of the fact that Sharla was sucking on a chicken leg: the ambiguities of intention, the absurdity of the situation would have to be factored into perception. With WF, calling the shots and controlling perception images of the action, the scene is just a conventional series of shots filmed to provoke disgust with the chicken leg sometimes even looking like a penis with Joe’s reactions simulating ejaculatory anticipation. The scene coming after the actual realistic beating Joe gives Sharla, construes as just a monotonous continuation of the violence. In fact I thought Joe was going to kill Sharma by ramming fried chicken leg down her throat, because that seemed the direction of his actions. The scene is locked into contradictions in form: It can’t push over into the domain of black comedy where it needs to go, because it trapped in a depictation and replication. At this point KJ and WF come to a dead end.
As a play KJ may have worked (I didn’t see it) because it had actors playing out virtual and intentional desires in a representational encompasser of the theatre set. WF’s KJ fails because it has actors trapped in actual playing of characters folling intentional lines of desire in realist settings. Nothing fits, only confusion and cross purpose are expressed. adrin neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org