Killer Joe (William Friedkin, USA, 2011)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, Neurocinematics

Killer Joe tells the story of trailer trash Texan family the Smiths. Son Chris (Emile Hirsch) owes money to some local gangsters and so hatches the plot to kill his mother, Adele (Julia Adams), in order to take home her savings via an inheritance.

To do this, he hires a local cop-cum-hitman, the titular Joe (Matthew McConnaughey), as well as roping in his dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), his stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) and his little sister Dottie (Juno Temple) – with whom he’ll split the money four ways. The reason he has to involve the rest of his family is because Adele savings are apparently all to be left in her will to Dottie.

Since the money is going to come only after the hit, Chris and co offer Dottie as ‘collateral’ to Killer Joe. And Joe takes Dottie – presumably depriving her of her virginity in the process.

The film is blackly comic – with some amusing deadpan humour, plain funny sight gags, trailer park gawping, and unsettling violence – which is often sexualised.

The film is, as a former colleague of mine has pointed out to me, pretty harsh on its women: Adele barely features, Sharla is a conniving slut, and Dottie, having been deflowered by Joe, seems to fall for him pretty bad.

It’s not that the male folk fare better: most people in the film are copper nanotubes (Google it), the men included. But the women don’t really get a look in, being sexual objects, somewhat fatales, pretty incapable of autonomous action, and something of a backdrop for the men to be men together.

However, aside from these shortcomings, and no doubt some interesting things that could be discussed in terms of neo-noir and other films of its ilk – The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom, USA/Sweden/UK/Canada, 2010) and U-Turn (Oliver Stone, France/USA, 1997) came to mind while watching it – the film is interesting for a couple of things that I’d like to discuss now and both of which, in short order, suggest that the film is reflecting on the cinematic experience.

I am in the midst of reading Gabriele Padullà’s In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators after the Cinema. The book basically tries to explain what the cinema experience is like – and while I have not finished it to know Padullà’s argument exactly, it seems as though he basically wants to account for how filmgoers watch movies because they enjoy them.

This requires a bit of explanation, since Padullà’s argument will seem obvious (duh, of course we watch movies because we enjoy them). How it is interesting, though, is the way in Padullà dismisses earlier interpretations of the film viewing experience.

For example, early film theorists often compared cinema to Plato’s Cave. The philosopher for Plato is the person who realises the most humans unthinkingly are sat in a cave watching the projected shadows of reality, but not reality itself. Cinema is a bit like sitting in such a cave and watching projected shadows of reality. Ergo, cinema might be a bit like Plato’s cave.

Except, for reasons practical if for no other, then cinema makes ‘philosophers’ of us all (but does it really?), since we all know that reality does not conform to the movies (but do we?). Now, the Plato model perhaps was employed for the political reason that to compare a mass medium like cinema to a great like Plato helps to legitimise cinema as an authentic art form. Indeed, that cinema can and perhaps does make philosophers of us (something I argue in my own published work – but not quite in this fashion/for these purposes) also no doubt helps to legitimise cinema as a ‘meaningful’ form – when most people view it as crash, bang, wallop blood-splattering fun.

However, the Plato analogy cannot stand up when it is clear that we choose to watch movies that we know are just illusions. Furthermore, since we now view films not in a darkened room but, as Padullà puts it, in broad daylight, further means that the Plato analogy is outdated.

Furthermore, Padullà rejects the idea that cinema is a mirror or something like a dream screen for the same reason: we can and do get up during film viewing, we talk, check our phones (my example, not Padullà’s) and the images are far more precise than a dream image.

So, given that these models of what the cinematic experience is or is supposed to be, Padullà’s suggestion (so far) that we watch films because we want to and because we enjoy them takes on some ‘revolutionary’ force.

Why this sidetrack into Padullà?

Because I wonder Killer Joe seems to reflect directly on viewing practices in the contemporary era – and I shall give what I consider to be two clear-cut examples. And I’ll give them in reverse order (in that the one I discuss first happens later in the film than the one I discuss second).

Minor spoiler: as Joe explains to Sharla and Ansel how he is going to deal with Chris following the (expected) botching of the plot to win Adele’s money, Ansel’s attention is drawn to a television depicting monster trucks.

Joe reacts poorly, heading over to the TV and destroying it.

Why this is important to me is because Ansel’s attention cannot but be drawn towards the monster truck screen – in spite of the fact that Joe is talking to him.

While Ansel no doubt likes shows with monster trucks in them, this also signals how the screens that fill our contemporary world are designed – even in broad daylight – to capture our attention. That is, even though we are supposed to be concentrating on something else (here, Joe talking), we find that we look at the screen not because we want to, but because we have no choice but to.

I know that Padullà addresses what we might call the attention economy in a section beyond where I am right now in In Broad Daylight, so apologies to him if I guess incorrectly the nature of his eventual argument.

Nonetheless, I wonder to what extent we are prey to the moving images on the ubiquitous screens that surround us the whole time (which is not to mention the loud sounds that we hear everywhere, too). Indeed, various essays that I have written argue that cutting rates and various other techniques, that colour, that the depiction of human emotions, and (this one’s not published – yet) that the beauty of film stars, are all designed – advertently or otherwise – to attract our attention, whether or not we actually like or enjoy a film. To this extent, cinema – and other screen media – draw upon our attention naturally, meaning that our minds are spent considering neither our natural environment (inasmuch as we might consider screens to be ‘unnatural’) nor attending to what we choose to.

No doubt the cognitive pleasures in having our attention aroused (we feel ‘alive’ when we are searching for prey, predator or mate – apparently) have caused a situation of feedback: that is, we go looking for rapid image fixes rather than attend to what we ought to – as my students looking at their iPhones during film screenings in class attests.

Nevertheless, not only would this seem to suggest that we do not strictly look at screens because we enjoy it (we can and do enjoy it, but how much choice we have in looking is up for grabs – anyone who has tried to hold down a conversation in a pub showing even the most banal television perhaps knows this feeling), but it also suggests that we might (wilfully!) be heading into Plato’s Cave – whereby we look at screens, at the play of illusions, rather than at reality, even though we know reality is out there.

In this sense, while Padullà’s critique of the Plato analogy is powerful, he might conceivably overlook the way in which the Plato analogy might also be prophetic.

(And note: when we do not look at what we want to, or when we cannot but hear the sounds of screens that surround us, then to an extent, these sounds and images are doing violence to us. I think of it thus: when I have been trying to sleep and I hear a television, I find the jolts from light sleep caused by the television to be truly jarring and disturbing, violent even. Perhaps you have had a similar experience…? Okay, so it is good for us to be alert and ready for violence – as the Darwinians would have us believe – but cinema and the other screen media would also have us believe that we were made to live in a hyperstimulated state, when a world without screens would have some – real – violence, but nothing like the constant barrage that we have now…)

The second moment, which comes earlier in the film, is when Joe ‘seduces’ Dottie for the first time. During this scene, Dottie undresses for Joe, who turns his back on her and then gives her orders as he undresses himself.

Okay – we the audience members see Dottie, and so there is a complex interplay going on here between our own voyeurism (heterosexual males if no others are drawn to Dottie’s figure for ‘natural’ reasons) and Joe’s projections.

What I mean by this is that in not looking at Dottie, but instead getting her to approach him from behind, he gets to imagine what she looks like – preferring his imagination to actually seeing or looking at her.

In other words, while Joe is pissed off at Ansel for looking at the TV and not at him, Joe himself has a strange relationship with reality, such that he prefers to create projected fantasy worlds rather than to engage in what is actually in front of him.

As much is borne out later when Joe gets Sharla to simulate fellatio on a piece of K Fried C that he holds over his crotch. Joe does not want real contact with Sharla, it seems, but gets off on simulated contact. In other words, it seems that Joe is also as addicted to images as Ansel, and that he prefers images to reality.

Now, since we do see Dottie undress, we might say that Joe has his own foibles, but that we as viewers prefer actually to look. Except, of course, that we are watching a film and not reality. In other words, director Friedkin seems to be bringing to our attention the way in which he, too, is constructing (male) fantasies that we see played out, and which perhaps we prefer to ‘reality’.

The fake BJ scene is most telling in this respect: Joe has just smashed in Sharla’s face when he forces her to suck the chicken leg. If Joe is somehow an ersatz viewer, then Friedkin seems in some respects to be throwing back into our (male) faces the fantasies of sexualised violence that Joe enacts. Indeed, Friedkin ramps this up by seeming to have the seem play out in a titillating fashion (even though the scene is shot from a combination of long, medium and low angle shots; the arch lighting might also enhance this effect).

Joe even suggests with Dottie that he and she are 12 years old as they enact their fantasy sex – an ironic comment, it seems, on the regressive powers of cinema for making us engage not with the real world, or with real people, but with fantasy images of people instead.

Again, then, it seems that Padullà might have been premature (though, again, he might twist back on himself in the book – we shall see) in dismissing both the notion of the mirror and the notion of Plato’s cave as analogies for the film experience.

For, the predominance of screens in the contemporary world – and their power to hold our attention ahead of the reality – seems to suggest that we might be moving willingly into something like Plato’s Cave. And the way in which film can muck about with our sexual fantasies, which of course are based on mental images as much as on reality, suggests that we cannot only watch films because we enjoy them (even though this is a primary motivating factor). But it can be for more perverse and deep-seated reasons than that, ones that cognitive psychology can do little to answer for, and which still need something along the lines of psychoanalysis (with warnings/provisos) to at least begin to contemplate.

Killer Joe is not necessarily a great film, nor the best by Friedkin. Nonetheless, Friedkin belongs to a generation of directors that Padullà says were obsessed with cinema as it was: busy, bustling, loud auditoria, not the museum culture of silence and worship that we have today. As such, it seems unsurprising that his film – in so many ways a throwback to an older generation of noir – would seem nostalgic for former film viewing experiences. Ones where we not endlessly distracted by other, smaller, faster moving screens. And ones where our own fantasies helped to fill in the gaps left by the film world – rather than seeing everything because the cinema shows everything…

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