William Friedkin rediscovers his electric and pulpy 70′s roots in Killer Joe – which stands as one of the best American films so far produced this year. Joe’s success as a film revolves around one of its few scenes of actual violence, the infamous fellatio/deep-fried chicken scene which easily takes the prize as one of the most viscerally disgusting, yet thematically effective sequences in modern American cinema. What this scene accomplishes is two-fold: it examines the manipulative power of film in regards to where a viewer places their allegiance while simultaneously elucidating how a viewer’s laughter plays a critical role when faced with movie violence.
Killer Joe’s manipulating efficacy is driven through Friedkin’s and his writer, Tracy Lett’s, proclivity for establishing contrast through the habitual use of gratuity and stereotype. Right from the beginning Friedkin cultivates an intensely hyper-real, parody-like depiction of white-trash, trailer-park family life. The introductory waist-down nudity shot of Gina Gershon is shocking and, at least on the surface, a remarkably egregious example of gratuity. However, what this shot and the almost cartoonish characterization that follows establishes is the exact tonal quality that Friedkin is looking to imbue his film with.
The story successfully piles on this sensationalistic tone to invert the viewer’s expectations of which characters we will empathize with. The parental figures of the central family (Gershon and Thomas Haden Church) are depicted in rather unsavory lights, ranging from Gershon’s repellant, unfaithful and scheming Sharla to Church’s hilarious albeit idiotic Ansel. Friedkin and Lett are clearly disinterested in nuance or realism in their depiction of human behavior. Thus, the central family’s dynamic oscillates solely between indifference and contempt for one another.
The opening scene is a strong affirmation of this technique. It establishes that the central characters of the family (Church, Gershon and Hirsch’s Chris) relate most strongly through simmering animosity and exude pulpy sleaze. Venomous verbal barbs are thrown, normal familial boundaries are discarded and Church waddles around in a frankly outrageous “onesie” pajama suit. All of these elements contribute to Friedkin’s agenda of utilizing gratuity that actually serves a non-gratuitous purpose. These seemingly gratuitous touches are actually necessary because they convey that these are characters we can be entertained by but not necessarily empathize with. They are simply too lurid, too repulsive to champion. This creation or destruction of the viewer’s empathetic link to the characters is instrumental in the film’s later focus of exploring the connection of the viewer to violent scenarios involving said characters.
Of course, Friedkin’s utilization of non-gratuitous gratuity is only part of the reason why the film’s eventual violent scenes work so well. He also relies heavily on Matthew McConaughey, who, building off of the brilliance he displayed in this year’s Magic Mike, again delivers a magnificent performance that screams of a meta-film awareness of his own cannon. McConaughey is effortlessly charming in the role, meticulous in everything from how he assembles his leather-centric outfit to the methodical way that he articulates himself. He is immediately established as far more charismatic than the film’s cast of spastic trailer-dwellers. What this use of the actor suggests is that Friedkin was willing to gamble that McConaughey’s ingrained relationship with the movie-going public (as the charismatic and loveable romantic-comedy goofball) would assist in shifting the viewers’ allegiances to Killer Joe and help them ignore that he should be paradoxically the most repugnant character in the story if examined in mainstream moral terms.
Lett’s script also adds support to this conversion of the Joe character into being the target of the audience’s empathy. The script portrays the mother figure (the target of Joe’s contract) as a demonic, irredeemable figure and then does not allow her to appear on-screen, or exonerate herself in any form. Thus, Joe’s murderous actions do not illicit any moral condemnation. He simply remains a charismatic figure worthy of an audience’s backing.
The most powerful and specific example of how the film manipulates its audience’s empathy can be found by examining Joe’s and the family’s wildly opposing stances towards the youngest member of the family: Juno Temple’s Dottie. This dichotomy is exemplified in the Joe and Dottie date sequence – where the viewer is clearly shown how the family’s relationship to Dottie is built around exploitation, while Joe’s seems to be built around mutual emotional and sexual gratification.
Joe is compassionate and tactful during the date scene, allowing Temple’s irate Dottie to emerge from her room of her own volition and in her own time. This is an act that paints Joe as being starkly contrasted to someone like Church’s Ansel, who roughly had attempted to pull an emotional Dottie out of her room moments before Joe’s arrival. This process of shifting viewers’ allegiances towards Joe is solidified again due to McConaughey’s presence. Because of his involvement the scene is injected with a charming sense of whimsy, specifically during the moment where McConaughey reacts to Dottie’s rather repulsive looking tuna casserole in an absurdly emphatic manner or where he strolls around the trailer, commenting about how he “…doesn’t have any stories…” about the little items he has observed in the mobile home.
The Joe and Dottie date sequence is where the film’s bizarre use of humor starts to become more well-defined. In the date scene the film’s deployment of McConaughey’s inherent silliness is a tactic which encourages the viewer’s pre-existing desires regarding the potential outcome of the sequence. Deeply intuitive about this desire and aware that, with a film like Killer Joe, the potential for violence seems to perpetually loom over each scene, Friedkin uses humor to give the viewer a payoff for where they placed their allegiances. He rewards our desire to not see something terrible happen to the most innocent character in the story (Dottie) or for the most charismatic character (Joe) to be discredited in our eyes.
The scene where Chris is confronted by the enforcers operates in a similar fashion – that is, with the viewer’s pre-existing desires again being rewarded. However, this reward is based around the polar opposite desire for the fate of the character being faced with potential violence. At this point in the film we have already observed Chris’s complete lack of a moral struggle over whether or not he should ice his mother, his (at least initial) willingness to offer up his sister Dottie as collateral to Joe in lieu of payment and finally the presence of a frantic, irresponsible personality that is flat-out abrasive. Also, Friedkin adds an additional layer of superfluous dialogue that is disarmingly affable and so wildly incongruent with its context that when the punches and kicks start falling the effect is of course shocking but also chuckle-inducing and perhaps slightly titillating. There is a part of us that likes and wanted to see this diminutive creep get knocked about and Friedkin’s use of overtly stylized dialogue and a wildly inappropriate musical choice helps mediate any mono-emotional reactions we might have to seeing Hirsch’s face get turned into a punching bag.
In the final scene of violence (the fried chicken scene) the film’s use of manipulation to shift allegiances and humor to encourage the pre-existing desires of the audience (born from these allegiances) is taken to the most extreme and grotesque of levels. Already firmly committed to Killer Joe, the viewer is eagerly anticipating the violence that Joe will enact upon Gershon’s Sharla, who has been painted as a scheming and unloving Machiavellian creature by the film at this point. In many ways the film operates in this segment in a similar fashion to the scene where Chris is confronted by the enforcers. The scene rewards our desire to see violence and thus implicates the viewer as being a participant in Joe’s violent and sadistic pathology.
Of course, this implicating effect is, by itself, nothing overly revelatory. It had been explored by films like Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom all the way back in 1960. What makes this scene so transcendent, so eloquent about not only the power of film but also about our rather depraved relationship to violence on-screen is the level of humor involved and how this humor affects our response to the film’s violent scenario actually exceeding our imaginations.
When Joe finally opens up and becomes physical the effects are so shockingly violent, so devastating to Gershon’s corporal entity and so horrifically degrading that the viewer immediately chastises themselves for ever wishing to observe the depths of Joe’s barbaric nature. Still, this chastisement is almost immediately undercut because the film once again infuses McConaughey’s terrifying (and highly believable) rage with a strange form of silliness and repeatedly cuts away from the horror of the fellatio image to Thomas Haden Church’s Ansel, who is observing the scene and commenting on it with a masterful, hilarious and dead-pan sense of shock.
The film uses humor to counter the impulse of the viewer to reel in their pre-existing desire for violence and torture (once they are faced with a depiction of violence that a majority of people could never have imagined). Thus, an upsetting scenario is presented to us – where we want to escape from the scene because the violence is more intense than we imagined but simultaneously are compelled to remain engaged due to the film using humor as encouragement. Essentially, the film produces laughter for two reasons. Of course, the initial and instinctual provocation of laughter comes from the viewer being overcome by a feeling of nervous revulsion – precipitated through the knowledge of having wanted to see violence but not being prepared for the eventual lunatic savagery that transpires. The other more subtle reason is that film understands this nervousness and uses humor to encourage viewers to basically overcome any desire to recoil and to just find enjoyment in the scene. Simply put, the scene is indeed horrific but it also is just strangely funny.
Initially this tone makes the film appear to dismiss or cheapen the importance of on-screen violence. However the film, in actuality, is being dismissive of any sanctimonious illusions that the audience might have about themselves as being simple or innocent non-participatory observers. With this interpretation in mind, Killer Joe stands as a successor of the same freakish power that drove Boorman’s 1972 feature, Deliverance. Similar to the technique of Joe, Boorman successfully builds the audience’s distaste for Ned Beatty’s patronizing and weak-willed Bobby (turning us into advocates for Bobby to experience violent comeuppance) and then uses the outrageous (and humorous) behavior of the hillbillies to help counter any reservations we have about continuing to observe the violent degradation of a character who we had been wishing would experience violent misfortune.
The use of manipulative, gratuitous characterization, Matthew McConaughey and black humor allows Friedkin’s film to powerfully comment on the complexities involved with observing cinematic brutality. The film seems to tell people that their first impulses (the desire to see violence) was actually closest to who they really are and that even depictions of violence that explode past the limits of our imaginations can be overcome and enjoyed. As much as we might be laughing in the final scene because of McConaughey’s drawl or Church’s monotone the ultimate reason could be our anxiety over having asked the filmmakers for violence, trying to distance ourselves from said request and then having the film push us further a long our sub-consciously desired violent path. It’s a disturbing lesson that is gleaned because we then realize that Joe’s monstrous plan in the final scene is simply a reflection and that our level of participation is so palpable that it might as well not be Joe’s hand on the chicken bone, but our own.
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