Killer Joe (2012) / The Paperboy (2012): When Actors Do “Poor Face”

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After a certain amount of fame, an actor will eventually want to get back to actual “acting” and take on that challenging role. Either they will ugly themselves up (think Charlize Theron in Monster) or play a mentally/physically-disabled person, a direct route to critical praise and possible Oscar recognition. [Think about the roles Tom Hanks took before his award winning, AIDS- having role in Philadelphia.] It seems the go-to role for these actors is suddenly the “poor white trash” route.

Actors, especially the ones considered glamorous and beautiful, probably takes these roles in order to “slum-it.” Here, they personify the lowest socioeconomic class, which is the opposite of them in real-life that it shows they can ACT. They embrace these characters, their depravity, and their mannerisms to the point that they almost are wearing “poor face.” There’s a fine line between portrayal and complete stereotyping.

Both Killer Joe and The Paperboy are about the deep south, so they feature lots of sweat on the actors at all times, people doing disgusting things and living depraved lifestyles, but these characters seem to be victims of their hometowns and their financial status and can’t help how they are. For the viewer, it’s a glimpse into the “freakshow” of the poor and uneducated. The difference between the films is that Killer Joe was critically lauded and The Paperboy was critically panned. The similarities is that they both star Matthew McConaughey and they both are an exploitation of the type of lifestyles they are trying to portray. And, to me, are both nearly unwatchable.

Both films were big on the film festival circuit and for the more “indie” film fan, which already indicates an expectation of a viewing experience. Often, with films like these, those that don’t like it are just brushed off as “not getting it” or not understanding it full enough. Believe me, I get what the filmmaker was trying to do. I get it but I don’t like it.

Killer Joe is billed as a dark comedy. I suppose this is true, but “dark comedy” is often a label slapped on something with uncomfortable material. Killer Joe is a drawn-out montage of characters being depraved, making stupid decisions. Emile Hirsch plays the son of Thomas Hayden Church and Gina Gershon, who concoct a plan of hiring a hitman to kill his estranged mother  for the insurance money. Enter Killer Joe, a police detective moonlighting as a hit man. He falls for the young sister Dottie, a woman of age but with the mind of a child. If there’s anything “brave” about McConaughey’s performance, it’s merely the shock of seeing the former star of The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past ask for a hand job from a woman-child and force Gina Gershon to perform oral sex on a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken (actual scenes in the movie, I assure you.)

The shocking events don’t add up to a complete story. Now, I don’t need a complete and traditional narrative in every movie I watch (I like Lars Von Trier films, for Pete’s sake) but these characters repeatedly act depraved and morally corrupt, for over two hours. Maybe it’s a character study, maybe it’s a moral fable, but to me it just seemed like a poor white trash minstrel show. The fact that Hollywood actors are taking on the rolls of these horrible people may trick folks into thinking they are watching IMPORTANT film. Director William Friedkin and writer/playwright Tracy Letts certainly have more talent in their pinkie fingers than most people in Hollywood, but it still doesn’t help.

The Paperboy takes place in the the swamps or Florida in the sixties, so you know that means: racism! Ignorance! Repression! And of course, more sweat! I don’t understand why this story needed to be told. The film is based on a book, which I am sure is more compelling and I trust author Pete Dexter to be good. And, the plot, on paper seems interesting enough: A reporter travels back to his hometown to try to prove the innocence of a convicted murderer, involving his younger brother and a sultry, mysterious woman.

I can certainly see why the actors probably jumped to be in this movie. It’s directed by Lee Daniels, hot off the heels of his praise for Precious, Based on the Novel Push, By Sapphire. Nicole Kidman’s character, Charlotte Bless, is a woman, who attractive on the outside, has a thing for falling in love with death row prisoners, secretly masking how broken she is inside. Actor’s dream! Matthew McConaughey took the role because he didn’t have to do any dialect coaching, and could let his southern drawl do all the work. Zac Efron, desperate to shed his Disney teen-idol image, jumped at the chance to work with the big names. Inexplicably, Macy Gray, as the maid, is the narrator for the whole story for some unexplained interview. It’s important to note that she was given a Razzie nomination for this, and no doubt deserved it.

Despite the promise of an engaging story, nothing really happens. Scenes follow each other, conflicts are hinted at and then never or quickly resolved, and we leave the movie with no better understanding of the characters or their actions. However, there seem to be “shocking” scenes that feel incredibly disconnected to anything, and may be a stand in for “groundbreaking”. Charlotte Bless urinates on a jelly-fish bite ridden Jack, perhaps as a method for bringing them closer, or to show Charlotte’s instinctual need to care for Jack. Upon a visit to Hilary Van Wetter (John Cusack)  in prison, he commands Charlotte to spread her legs and simulate a blow job while he masturbates. Finally, McConaughey’s character engages in gay bondage with strangers only for things to go too far. I can see how this is supposed to reveal a shocking secret about the character- but the character is not developed enough to begin with the have another dimension be shocking.

Shocking can be entertaining and groundbreaking for a film, especially if it calls into account a message or perspective. It seems that these two products are for mere shock for shock itself, and don’t include stories that need to be told. The Paperboy and Killer Joe seem to exist as daring opportunities for the actors that aren’t as daring for the audience to watch.

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