By Jake Mulligan
Still Reppin’ is a bi-weekly column that looks at films playing the Boston area’s repertory theaters, universities and museums. Movies considered will range from silent-era epics to undistributed millennial-era indies. A guide to the cities screens, written for all local film-watchers — but particularly for those tired of the digitized monotony of the contemporary superhero-sized multiplex cinema.
You may mistakenly believe — say, if you woke from a long coma, and had a laptop placed in front of you — that movies disappear mere weeks after they open. We obsess about set pictures, casting rumors and spoilers, then the movies emerge, and we never discuss them again. Eighteen months ago, you couldn’t scroll through your Twitter feed without seeing someone ponder, with deep passion or studied snark, whether or not Khan was going to feature in Star Trek Into Darkness. Then the movie came out and we all realized that, Khan or no Khan, there was nothing in it worth talking about.
That’s a problem inherent to the anticipation-heavy way we talk about movies — we care about what they might eventually be, rather than what they actually are. That’s a problem that repertory theatres correct. We’re lucky enough to have a handful of them in Boston; the Harvard Film Archive is among the strongest. The Archive’s known — unfortunately, if at all — for its complete retrospectives and for the attention it affords to the lesser-known names in contemporary international cinema. That may not sound sexy — it may even sound stuffy — but the Archive’s programming tastes are immeasurably livelier than those of our city’s corporate multiplexes. It screens movies worth talking about. A trip to the Archive promises, if nothing else, to provoke much more fruitful thoughts than will a bystander’s unfocused iPhone-snapped picture of Ben Affleck wearing a Batman suit.
Take this weekend. The theater will be playing host to a gruffed-up Hollywood legend; as well as to a key film of what we’ve collectively dubbed “The McConaissance.” The hard-nosed William Friedkin, director of The French Connection and The Exorcist, will be visiting the Archive to donate some 35mm prints, and to host two screenings. One of those two will be Sorcerer, a 1977 jungle-set actioner populated almost entirely by roughed-up, past-their-prime men; it can match even Bogart movies in a testosterone-off. The other will be the last feature that the 79-year-old Friedkin has directed to-date: 2012’s screwball-comedy-slash-redneck-noir Killer Joe.
Joe stars McConaughey as a police-detective-cum-hitman who kills a woman “on spec” when the family hiring him (Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church, and Emile Hirsch) offers up their teenaged daughter (Juno Temple) as a form of collateral. When the family’s plan to collect the insurance on the deceased’s corpse inevitably fails, Joe takes steps to ensure said collateral is his to keep — and thus many a demented act of both the sexual and violent variety is committed.
Friedkin’s last film is a horrific experience built from innumerable disgraces of the human flesh, verbal and physical. It’s also really fucking funny. (I’m particularly partial to a moment where Temple’s naif asks Joe if he’s ever assigned to investigate the killings he clandestinely carries out off-duty. “Sometimes,” he responds, at which point she asks, “Is that a problem?” McConaughey deadpans: “That’s a convenience.”) Adapted from a decades-old play by Tracy Letts, Joe’s a rabid beast of a movie; full of absurdist digressions, out-of-the-blue bloodshed, and off-kilter screwball banter. When the movie first played for Boston press a couple years ago, the room was split completely: half of us were howling like drunken jackasses, and the other half were recoiling in horror.
Anyway: Joe, being a killer, executes the woman that the family hired him to execute, only to find that the money promised isn’t promised anymore. That leaves him with his sultry teenaged retainer, which his clients — for moral reasons of the too-little too-late variety — would rather not give up permanently. And so McConaughey starts to poke holes in his own performance: exploding in the middle of sentences, letting those dead eyes dart like a hungry dog’s, scaring these hangers-on into petrified submission. Eventually he’s playing Joe as an unholy avenger, bringing righteous fire and brimstone down on these amoral sinners, with screams and yelps worthy of a Southern Baptist preacher. “I’ll slaughter all of you like pigs,” he snorts, whilst throwing a dining room table into a nearby wall. Forget the McConaissance, this is the McReckoning. Everyone in Killer Joe is out to fuck each other; the sickly comic payoff is that Matthew McConaughey fucks them all back.
The singularly debauched circumstances of the climactic action turn Friedkin’s film into a viewing experience at once invigorating and draining. That’s typical of the visiting artist: Friedkin never established a “trademark” visual style, but you know his movies when you see one, because by the time they end you’re physically exhausted. They’re almost sadistic, and that’s particularly true of Joe and Sorcerer, which constantly force viewers through increasingly traumatic sequences, with no respite but the cold relief of the end credits. Friedkin laid down gruesome, unabashedly grim tracks that decades of genre filmmakers, from America to Italy to Japan and beyond, would later travel down. True to form, his Joe is defined by a mad rush of surface pleasures and sensual imagery protruding from unpleasant visuals, queasy comedy and queasier violence mixing exuberantly throughout — a grotesque delight.
KILLER JOE W/ WILLIAM FRIEDKIN. HARVARD FILM ARCHIVE, 24 QUINCY ST., CAMBRIDGE. SAT 9.27. 7pm/R/$12.