Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Friedkin's Killer Joe

It's hard to watch a new Billy Friedkin flick because the guy's set the bar so damn high. He made The Exorcist for Chrissakes, a horror film that, after all these years, is still fully erect, and is still capable of deep brain penetration. I watched it again tonight and I was blown away by the precision direction, the pulverizing sound mix, and amazing special make-up effects by Dick Smith.

The film holds together like a concrete bunker and doesn't put a foot wrong. It's tight as teen vagina, never outstays its excesses, and builds to a superb climax. Its imitators are many, but none have remained as potent.

Then there's Sorcerer, the stupendously stellar remake of the French Wages of Fear, or, if you like, Friedkin's take on the original Georges Arnaud novel.   This is what suspense is all about. A bunch of outcasts haul a truck filled with bottles of nitro-glycerine across a mountain pass that you'd be crazy to ride a bike along, let alone gun a truck. The beauty of the piece is the way Friedkin layers the book's existential explorations into hair-raising suspense sequences. With Tangerine Dream throbbing on the soundtrack, we're plunged into a pitiless hell from which there is no escape. The film is Friedkin's Fitzcarraldo, and one can't help but compare its tone to that of filmmaker Werner Herzog and his best work. Any way you look at, the criminally neglected (on video) Sorcerer is, like The Exorcist, cinema of deep immersion.

Although celebrated (rightly) for his gritty The French Connection, an even better film, in my opinion, is his To Live and Die in LA, the surprising, stunning, and brutally unforgettable tale of LA criminals and the LA cops who become criminals in order to net them. Made as a $9 million indie production, it makes no Hollywood concessions to its anti-hero's fate and drops us into a totally believable world that is both attractive at gut level and repulsive. Featuring sexual intrigue, one of the greatest car chases ever committed to celluloid, Willem Dafoe as a villain equal to Dennis Hopper's 'Frank' in Blue Velvet, and enough double-crosses and wild plot turns to fuel a hundred imitators, it is the purest of cinema, a moving convention of invention and stylistic improvisation. Though often imitated, its mix of the gritty and the slick hasn't been equaled.

For mine, TLADILA signaled the close of a blazing chapter in the filmmaker's life. Despite captaining extremely interesting but flawed work such as Rampage, the 'Twilight Zone' entry Nightcrawlers, and the more recent The Hunted and Bug (a shift towards more intimate horror), Friedkin's strict adherence to structure, dedication to detail, and total cinematic immersion have been flagging for twenty years.

Fortunately, Killer Joe, based on a stage play I haven't seen or read by Tracy Letts, shows evidence of a Friedkin re-emerging fully from his comfortable Hollywood cocoon. Still, its joys are somewhat discounted by the expectations he's built with the above three masterpieces, in addition to other works of disturbing greatness such as Cruising and its thematic companion piece, The Boys in the Band.

Joe's straightforward plot gives Friedkin  room to let his character's breathe, and I didn't find myself thinking the film was stagey or too enclosed, even though the drama is close-up, intimate and bloody. Emile Hirsch, in debt to some unforgiving types, hatches a plan to pay off his debt by murdering a close family member. The sparks fly from this scenario. Mathew McConaughey, a dirty cop, also gets involved in the killing plot, but loses his focus when his dick begins pointing at Hirsch's little sister. It's a classic noir set-up, and, for me, it felt like the tonal sibling of last year's Jim Thompson thriller, The Killer Inside Me, a film I liked quite a bit more. Why? Immersion, brother. The Killer Inside Me buried you in its bloody womb. Got you all sticky and bothered. It was raw and ferocious cinematic intercourse.

Killer Joe, despite its grit and brutality and fine performances, remains strangely aloof. I was outside looking in. I had a good set of binoculars, but I couldn't touch it. Friedkin's positioning wouldn't let me.

It was impossible not to touch Sorcerer, To Live and Die, The Exorcist or Cruising. We were in the belly of those beasts. That's why I say it's hard to watch a new Billy Friedkin film: You're too aware of where he's taken you before. You're riding with him because you want him to take you there again. You're a little crestfallen when he doesn't. History's a bitch.



  1. Those last three lines: Uh oh.

  2. One word: BUG.

    Ashley Judd looking at pizza through a microscope.

  3. I really liked this one a lot. It was more a piece of chamber music than a full Friedkin symphony but I thought it worked its simple set of elements with great skill - and it was definitely a bracing alternative to most of the fodder clogging the multiplex right now.