Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011)

Killer Joe is the 2nd collaboration between Academy Award-winning Director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) and Playwright and Screenwriter Tracy Letts, following 2006’s Bug. Both films are based on plays by Letts, whose style has been described as “trailer park noir”, and who owes a debt in his storytelling to pulp fiction greats, James M Cain and Jim Thompson.

The premise of Killer Joe is simple. Small time drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) owes a lot of money to local crime boss Digger Soames (Marc Macauley). The only way Chris can raise the funds quickly is to have his errant mother killed, so he can cash in her insurance policy which names his sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as sole beneficiary. Enter Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) – a local police detective who moonlights as a hired killer, to take up the contract.

Chris lives with his lunk-head father Ansel (a terrific Thomas Haden Church), spacey sister Dottie and opportunistic step-mother Sharla (Gina Gershon). This highly dysfunctional family unit enters into a contract with Killer Joe, which is further complicated when Joe insists on his fee upfront. Unable to provide the money, Chris agrees that Joe can take Dottie as collateral, but pretty soon Chris’s plans start to crumble.

Friedkin lets the story and characterisation lead the way. There is no directorial grand-standing; no car chases, fight scenes or set-pieces to navigate. The focus is firmly on character development, and Letts has created characters who fully inhabit their environment.  An atmospheric tension is established from the opening scene of a car travelling on rain-lashed streets; and it is towards the release of this tension that the film itself travels.

Killer Joe is also notable for McConaughey’s central performance. His hired hand with southern-gentleman manners is personable, intelligent and articulate. Of course he’s also a psychopath who is capable of acts of sudden and shocking violence, and he ably walks this tightrope for all of the film’s lean playing time. The entire ensemble cast deserve mention, as everyone dives in and gives it their all. Friedkin lets everyone off the leash for the final, extended showdown in the family trailer, which becomes almost unbearable to watch.

The 77 year-old Friedkin was on hand at this screening in Dublin’s Lighthouse Cinema to provide some valuable insights into his working methods, and to tell lots of funny stories about his years in Hollywood. He is part of that legendary elite of film-makers who came of age in the late 1960s, in the so-called New Hollywood – a contemporary of Martin Scorsese (whose Raging Bull he said he was almost drafted in to complete), Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas; all of whom helped forge a new path for American cinema in the 1970s.

In Tracy Letts he now seems to have found a collaborator who not only shares his interest in investigating the dark side of human nature, but whose penchant for grimy locations and pulpy dialogue are perfect bedfellows for Friedkin’s visceral style of film-making. It will be interesting to see where they go next.

Killer Joe is on general release from next Friday.

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Closer to Darkness – The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr/Agnes Hranitzky, 2011)

Sometime back in 2008, the Hungarian film-maker Bela Tarr announced, somewhat surprisingly, that The Turin Horse would be his last film. This is perhaps fitting, as it would be hard to imagine where he might go next, were he to continue. The Turin Horse feels in some ways as if Tarr’s vision, unlike the world inhabited by its protagonists, has come to a satisfying conclusion.

Tarr’s inspiration for the film came from the story of an alleged incident in Turin in 1889, where the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche witnessed a horse being beaten by its owner. Nietzsche was so incensed at this scene of cruelty that he apparently flung his arms around the horse’s neck, in an attempt to protect it. Following this, he was said to have suffered a severe breakdown and eventually died a couple of years later. With this story in mind, and as a jumping off point for his last film, Tarr asks – what happened to that horse?

The Turin Horse is the story of a father and daughter living in a near-derelict farmhouse, in a remote rural landscape. The wind howls day and night; their daily meal consists of one boiled potato each, which they eat with their hands. There is no electricity or running water. We don’t know if this is a contemporary setting, or as the images might suggest, the middle ages.

This highly demanding film follows their daily routine, as they get up, dress, fetch water from the well and prepare the horse and cart for the daily journey into town.  All of this unfolds in Tarr’s usual long, slow takes. Gradually, we see that the horse becomes unwell and is eventually too weak to move. Thus also begins the couples’ slow decline, as without the horse, their world shrinks; and so too does any hope of them being able to carry on. Added to this, there is a creeping sense of unease, as if an apocalyptic Judgement Day is about to reign over this wind-blasted Beckettian landscape.

Tarr is once again aided by his cinematographer Fred Kelemen, whose gorgeous black and white images frame the hard-scrabble existence of the protagonists.  Whatever you think of Tarr’s work, there’s no denying that there are quite beautiful images here – the close tracking shots of the daughter as she trudges to the well, carrying two heavy wooden buckets, her cloak and hair flying in all directions; or the close-ups of the father’s heavily lined face, looking like something hewn out of solid rock. Every shot is crafted and deliberate. Lighting is minimal, the interiors suffused with lamplight, closer to darkness than light. In contrast to the slowly deliberate action on-screen, Kelemen’s camera glides serenely in and around the characters in a wonderfully kinetic dance.

Marking this film as a truly collaborative effort, Tarr has again used his usual composer, Mig Vihaly, whose customarily melancholic strings infuse most of the scenes; and Tarr’s wife (and editor) Agnes Hranitzky also gets a co-director nod. Tarr has already spoken of his reasons for quitting film-making, and has outlined his future plans. However, there can be no doubting that European art-cinema will miss his singular imprint. It will be interesting to see if his influence extends to younger generations of film-makers, and if they will attempt to improve upon his good, if slow, work.

The Turin Horse is out now.

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