SXSW Film Festival Day 2: Fredkin’s ‘Killer Joe’

William Friedkin’s Killer Joe might leave you feeling left for dead.

If Day 1 was dominated by rain (damn weather) and hilarious horror (thank you Cabin in the Woods), then Day 2 of SXSW Film 2012 was the day of Killer Joe. Directed by fear master William Friedkin, Killer Joe actually shares a few things in common with Joss Whedon’s SXSW premiere from the night prior. They both play with elements of terror. They both infuse their thrillers with a twisted number of laughs. And they are both freaking great.

That being said, they’re also both made for very specific audiences. Mom, I know you’re reading this and I know you enjoy all kinds of films, but please, PLEASE don’t see either of these. You and your distaste for brutal, realistic violence depicted in perverse ways will not have fun. What a weirdo, am I right?

Luckily for Whedon, Friedkin & co., my mother wasn’t at SXSW. I doubt anyone like my mother is at SXSW, and if they are, these two films would not make their schedule.

Instead, both films were met with lots of laughs, gasps, and thunderous applause. Though Cabin earned its response by fulfilling every Whedon fan’s wet dream (including naked ladies), Killer Joe worked by fitting one sick, twisted, violent vision.

Based on a play and adapted for the screen by Tracy Letts, Killer Joe is a film its director claims you’ll either love or hate, but you won’t be able to dismiss it. Some may want to forget the haunting characters Friedkin said he depicted “without irony”, but I doubt they’ll be able to shake them.

Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon, and Thomas Hayden Church make up the Smith family (whose common surname I imagine IS intentionally ironic), a trailer-ridden band of Southern hicks who get mixed up in a business beyond their means. This venture leads them to Joe Cooper (McConaughey), a Dallas detective who runs his own projects on the side. Problems ensue.

No one in Killer Joe is actually “good”, but Dottie is at least the most innocent. Younger than her brother Chris (Hirsch) but never given a specific age, Dottie is unnervingly naive, outspoken, and maybe even a bit slow. Her childlike view of the world adds another dimension to this already demented feature. Played with equal measures of fragility and fierceness by Juno Temple, Dottie is a mesmerizing character who will make or break your enjoyment of the film. Some may find her obtuse and unbelievable, but the humanity in Temple’s work won me over.

It’s far from an easy film to swallow even if we disregard Dottie. Killer Joe may be the blackest comedy ever made that still earns its laugh-out-loud moments of hilarity. You may not be able to explain why you were laughing, though, even to the person sitting next to you. In the sold-out premiere at the Paramount theatre Saturday night, some scenes earned shrieks of laughter from the whole crowd while others were only shared by a select few. I personally noted two instances where I caught myself laughing when no one else did, and two more when I was mortified beyond sound and others were rolling in the aisles (not literally – that never happens).

Friedkin was unable to attend due to an engagement in Vienna, but still recorded a video introduction for the film and phoned in during the post-screening Q&A. McConaughey, Gershon, Hirsch, and Letts were all in attendance, and I’m fairly certain McConaughey was wearing the same black cowboy hat he sports in the film. All seemed to be in good spirits following the well-received premiere.

The only sticking point came up when Friedkin polled the audience on whether or not the film deserved its NC-17 rating. Though McConaughey’s count cut off at only a handful of pro-NC-17 votes, I would’ve guessed closer to 40-50 percent of the remaining audience voted in favor of the MPAA’s harsh label.

One of the most troubling aspects of Killer Joe doesn’t take place on screen–and there is plenty that does. It’s the kind of film that benefits from being seen with a packed house, but it’s also a film that will struggle to attract a large audience, with or without the NC-17 rating. Here’s hoping no matter the final rating bestowed by the tyrannical bureaucracy no cuts are made to this engaging, effective comedic thriller. “Thriller” doesn’t wholly describe this film, but I’m not sure there’s a single word that would.

Earlier in the day, I caught Kirsten Sheridan’s experimental party film, Dollhouse. Focusing on a group of youths who invade a luxurious home for the night, Sheridan’s picture doesn’t carry much more of a plot than that. The film does do a few things very well, despite being a disappointing overall picture from Jim Sheridan’s daughter.

Music, of all kinds, is seamlessly integrated into the narrative. The acting is pretty solid for a troop of youths who only got a few pages of script every day to work on. Therein lays the problem with the picture, both in its formation and execution.

I once claimed that films would be better if you went in blind. Well, Dollhouse may be the exception. Sheridan, who attended the screening, said the actors weren’t told what happens at the end of the film. In fact, they weren’t even told what the other actors were going to do, what they were thinking, or their purpose in the scene. She wanted them to live in the moment and react to their fellow thespians with genuine surprise.

This information would’ve helped me appreciate aspects of the film otherwise dismissible. Though her ambitions occasionally prove fruitful, most of the time the actors are left staring blankly at each other. Their faces look confused, and that may not be acting. The other side effect of this strategy is the film’s overreliance on twists. We, the audience and most of the actors, are in the dark regarding what’s really going on for almost the entire film. Frankly, the payoff isn’t worth it.

The same can’t be said for Killer Joe, which has a finalé for the ages. I can only hope the rest of the Fest has films that are at least half as affecting.