William Friedkin, like a fine wine to the entrée, is the perfect directorial pairing for Tulsa-native Tracy Letts' screen adaptation of his Southern Mamet, 1991 play, Killer Joe.
The director of The Exorcist, The French Connection and personal favorite, Sorcerer, which Friedkin remade from the 1953 Henri-Georges Clouzot suspense classic The Wages of Fear, in many ways ruled a large part of the '70s American New Wave.
Man in Black. Matthew McConaughey stars as a hit man in Killer Joe.
To Live and Die in L.A cemented his signature in the '80s, with a near cult film that captured the tone of the decade. And while the '90s were not as creatively kind, 2006's Bug, a taut, psychological thriller, put Friedkin back on the radar. Bug's strong performances from Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd and adept sense of paranoia were memorable and also began his collaboration with Letts, who adapted his play.
Killer Joe proves that Friedkin, at 77, is as vibrant as he's ever been and that his collaborations with Letts's dark, wryly drawn, Texahoma Triangle characters are something special.
Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) owes $6000 to a local bookie who is not only prepared to kick the shit out of him but also bury him in a deep hole where he won't be found.
Living in a trailer on the outskirts of Dallas with his father, Ansel (a priceless Thomas Haden Church), his step mother, Sharla (Gina Gershon, being brave and awesome here) and his sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), a sexy virgin simpleton; Chris strikes on the idea of having his mother killed for the insurance money to pay off his debts. He brings his father into it and owing to Mrs. Smith's reputation for being an irredeemable bitch, Ansel is onboard, as well as the rest of the family, who plan to split up the $50,000 policy.
Enter Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a freelance executioner. Commissioned by Chris, Killer Joe is all business and demands a $25,000 fee. Since the money lies in their mother's death, and is willed to Dottie, Chris and Ansel let Joe take the dim-witted, cute, curvaceous, 20 year-old as a retainer. You know what they say about best laid plans.
Killer Joe is an American New Wave film in 2012, courtesy of Tracy Letts' well drawn characters and director Friedkin's nonplussed execution of their seedy, darkly funny circumstances. Letts's screenplay ticks like a clock and Friedkin builds the tension effortlessly, with a deliberate abandon that draws an audience into these almost unlikeable characters. Almost unlikeable, because despite their selfishness and opportunism they are only reacting to the hand that life is violently dealing to them.
Framed in Caleb Daschanel's noir-inspired cinematography, the performances from Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon and Thomas Hayden Church offer individual delights. Church's deadpan comic timing steals whole scenes while Hirsch's skill for playing sentient fools centers the film. Temple has the most disturbing role, her baby-fat sexual appeal perfectly balanced with her passive, ignorant need to be loved by assholes. Gina Gershon is great as Ansel's philandering, weirdly loyal wife, whose opportunism becomes forgivable when she's forced to endure the brutal consequences of her actions.
As Joe, Matthew McConaughey continues a string of near perfect performances in the last year. From his great character work in The Lincoln Lawyer, to his sublime casting as hapless DA Danny Buck in the Jack Black-starring Bernie, to his reputedly stellar turn as an aging male stripper in Magic Mike, McConaughey is on a major roll that almost erases the existence of Failure to Launch. His character here is something like Lou Ford, a small town Texas lawman with a psychopathic streak. But as much as he becomes the titular threat for every scene he's in, Killer Joe's deft hand is well played in how Friedkin balances his characters, performances and a plot that deliciously unspools with disturbing, genuine and somewhat frustrating results. Hands down, Gina Gershon blowing a chicken leg will be the most uncomfortable scene of the year.
Nostalgia for William Friedkin is not a waste of time. He still pushes the right buttons.
Robot and Frank
On the Run. Jeremy Sisto co-stars in Robot & Frank.
Frank Langella is finally coming into the just desserts of his long, prolific career. A stalwart actor, he might have only enjoyed the "hey, it's that guy" hell of so many rank and file '70s and '80s character actors. From television roles to film, playing everything from Zorro to Dracula, his career has only found its apex lately. Between his turn as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon to The Daily Plant's Perry White in Bryan Singer's abortive Superman remake, to his creepy role as Arlington Stewart in Richard Kelly's underappreciated, The Box, Frank Langella is coming into his own in a way that could only happen now.
In Robot and Frank, the feature debut from director Jake Schreier, Frank Langella has become the refined, more capable, Walter Matthau, which is kind of goddamn amazing.
Frank (Langella) is an ex-cat burglar with onset dementia who really wants nothing to do with his kids. Holed up in his rural home, Frank's well-off prick of a son, Hunter (James Marsden), buys him a robot caretaker -- as opposed to putting him the 'Brain Center' that may or may not lobotomize him.
Frank hates the robot, as does his daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), a self-involved activist who ignores Frank as much as Hunter, but for more altruistic reasons.
Robot (Peter Sarsgaard), winds up being Frank's penultimate best friend. Programmed to keep him healthy, Frank convinces Robot to learn to pick locks and case out a local library that has an original copy of Don Quixote because Robot has no idea it's breaking the law. And it can pick a lock faster than any human -- augmenting Frank's fading faculties while making him feel alive and well.
When their heists garner the attention of the law, and the meddling of his family, Frank convinces Robot to help him out with one last score.
What's fun about Robot and Frank is the easy humor found in Langella and Sarsgaard's performances. An odd sci-fi, crime comedy, though the action is dialed down in favor of character development, Langella does an amazing job not just in the role of a scoundrel in his sunset, but as a counterpart to Sarsgaard's voice performance, crafting a believable, sweet-natured, buddy comedy.
Director Jake Schreier coolly navigates the narrative, adeptly capturing the near future elements with subtle -- and low-budget -- details that nicely augment the reality of the world that Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford have created.
Supporting turns from Marsden and Tyler are serviceable, and Susan Sarandon is great as Frank's love interest, Jennifer, who may or may not have a history with the demented thief. Guarded and sexy, her character winds up endearingly geeky, and charmingly vulnerable.
But this is really Langella's film. His Frank is funny, curmudgeonly, genuine and sad, all brought to bear by his detailed performance. The chemistry with Sarsgaard is the cherry on top of a sweet, funny sci-fi Sundae. One that's likely to charm if you aren't expecting anything resembling a meaningful conflict.
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