Double Shot: Killer Joe (2011) & Cold in July (2014)

When one just isn’t enough! Guaranteed to keep you up all night seeing double by dawn! This week’s double is a dose of:

Killer Joe Cold in July

The electric thermostat reads 93 degrees, which for New England is high enough to create one killer July. It’s also that time of the year when the summer humidity begins to weigh down on you like southern fried guilt, squeezing every ounce of sweat until there’s nothing but a worn out shell. Sounds melodramatic I know, but it’s a temperature so stifling it makes you want to curl up in front of a fan and dive into the cool heat of a neo-noir double feature. So in the lazy haze of the summertime heat, that’s exactly what I did, with William Friedkin’s Killer Joe and Jim Mickle’s Cold in July.

Killer Joe

dottie & killer joe

Based off the play of the same name by Tracy Letts, Killer Joe introduces us to the hyper-dysfunctional family of Chris (Emile Hirsch), a continually down on his luck drug dealer with a hair-brain scheme to inherit $50,000 dollars in order to pay off a mob boss. The plan? Hire a police detective moon-lighting as a contract killer named Joe (Matthew McConaughey) to kill his mom in order to receive her life-insurance. The catch? Chris, his bum father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and his step-mother Sharla (Gina Gershon) don’t have the money upfront to acquire Joe’s ruthless talents, so they offer Chris’ younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as a retainer.

If you’re wondering if things go even more south than the films Texas setting, they do. Chris and his trailer torn family are the type of penniless hopefuls that despite dreams of cutting loose from their lives are unable to get one knee planted firmly on the ground so they can step over life’s obstacles. Chris is strapped for cash, yet he burns up an easy $1,000 betting on horses, moments before being viciously beaten by two mob thugs. They constantly round every corner with a dull thud, tripping over the tattered loose ends they never accounted for. Their deal with Joe turns into a bumbling mess of an operation with the depravity of a three-legged dog in heat, flashing its immorality like a badge of honor.

Chris and Ansel trade moronic barbs between each other as things escalate, each one thinking the other an idiot, while the women in their lives become consequences of their decisions. Dottie is masqueraded for her seemingly childlike sexuality, while Sharla remains beholden to whichever man offers her a small percentage of hope for staying afloat. Each one is slowly driven to submission or sober realization by Joe, the films man in black, who demands their respect and commands our attention. It’s a role that feels tanned, split and shaped by McConaughey in just about every facet, who creates a devilishly dominant death dealer out of thin air.

It’s far from a feel-good feature, and often wears its unpleasantness on its sleeve, though it does so knowingly and unflinchingly. William Friedkin (Sorcerer [’77]), who leniently  demonstrated such nastiness with a crucifix to a young girls crotch in The Exorcist [’73], cuts the ruthless heat with the bluntest and bleakest of comedy. The screenplay – written by Letts – is hand-tossed and coated in sweat and savvy, producing the darkest meat the black comedy has ever seen. It’s reprehensible and riotously hilarious, tempering some of the films more brutal showcases, which are framed and lit like the stage play it came from.

Cold in July

cold-in-july-trailer

Few films take a barebones plot – lets say a crime laden revenge story – and a quarter of the way through, twist it into something else entirely. For whatever reason, films nowadays tend to offer what they’ve laid out in the trailers, hoping that you like what you see. With Cold in July – based off the 1989 novel of the same name by Joe R. Lansdale – audiences are shown a synth driven neo-noir set in 1980’s Texas, and before the 30 minute mark, everything sort of metamorphosis. It’s a rare glimpse into the malleability of genre filmmaking, but when executed with precision, it becomes one of the most electrifying and wondrous acts of movie making magic.

What starts out as a burglary gone wrong quickly spirals into a desperate attempt to protect the homestead after mild-mannered picture framer Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) shoots and kills an intruder. Soon the crooks father Ben (Sam Shepard) is released from prison, and swiftly acts out revenge on Richard, his wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw) and their son Jordan (Brogan Hall).

I won’t go too deep into Cold in July, as it’s a twisty, pulp-laden narrative about what it means to be tough and Texan (traits that are ubiquitous and synonymous), yet like the films searching and emasculated characters, things are never as they appear.

Jim Mickle approaches his subjects with as much inner-conflict as those that popped amongst the shadows in We Are What We Are [’13], except the gothic world of womanhood is replaced with the questioning motives of masculinity. It’s the Texas of the late 80’s, filled with average men discovering abnormal circumstances, opening up a world that only resides in the paperbacks that line drug stores.

Much of the violence of Cold in July erupts in the vein of Blue Ruin [’13], which saw a man bent on revenge discover that his violent capabilities don’t match up with the fantasy of the action hero. Here, when someone breaking into a home is shot, it’s done so out of fear rather than enthusiasm for brutality, implicating that man’s impulse and inclination towards violence is as surprising and unnatural as the perversion that comes later.

Rather than perfect the neo-noir genre, Jim Mickle and screenwriter Nick Damici contort their film into a much more inquisitive and often sensitive film. It’s one that prefers its chameleon skin over generic expectations with a story about those that push back against the law and the unlawful. And while Cold in July may seem like standard fare, it’s ultimately a film that knows that at the heart of genre filmmaking lies an appetite for the unconventional, where the ability to toy with expectation heightens the power of its storytelling.

 

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