William Friedkin has had a pretty bumpy ride of a directorial career. A tempting critical judgement is that he peaked with the landmark films The Exorcist and The French Connection. Maybe that's the curse of still being alive while your films are part of the cinematic canon. George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, et al, seem to have a very hard time dragging the adoring spotlight from the past to the present. To Live and Die in L.A. was a good film, but it would be nearly twenty years before he would make another feature film, Bug, that was worthy of his legacy.
Killer Joe is noteworthy because it is a departure from the trajectory of his work. For all of the shock value of The Exorcist, it was a classically formal film, breaking few conventions of story structure. "Popeye" Doyle was not entirely likable, but he was a reworked hard case cop from earlier pulps and noir. He was also very "real", a viewer could very easily imagine a "Popeye" Doyle cruising the streets of the nearest city. Bug, also written by Tracy Letts, was a tense film with an unreality that was a product of drug delusion rather than cinematic flourish. This is not a bad thing, of course, but it shows that the weird in Friedkin's world has always been grounded in something close and tangible.
As Killer Joe, Matthew McConaughey demonstrates a gleeful darkness which pushes further than the other morally challenged people he has played. He pushes it a little too far, and portrays a cartoon of extreme violence which owes quite a bit to Mickey Knox. Sharla Smith (Gina Gershon) is a caricature of a trashy Texas sexpot. Mostly, this film is about the neo-noir escapades of a whole host of cartoon rednecks and petty criminals. Which works for this film, mostly, because it would be too anti-social for mainstream audiences if we were supposed to take it completely seriously. Intense, dark, and trashy; but never too serious.
The film is a visual treat. As in Bug, the film is intensely colorful and saturated. This isn't a Tarantino-esque talky neo-noir, this is a picture show. Shot by Caleb Deschanel, the stylized visuals bring it closer to Sin City, further from The Town. Darrin Navarro is credited as the film's cutter, the results of which are invisible but effective at keeping the pictures going the direction they are supposed to. Unfortunately, the post-production team got a little carried away with the color correction and at times this distracts from the imagery.
The film's domestic premiere was at SXSW, probably because of the Texas connection, but more likely because the SXSW audiences would view this kind of film better than multiplex audiences. Calling Killer Joe an art film doesn't quite feel right, but its emphasis on cinematic eye candy certainly makes it an artifice film. Killer Joe the assassin cop is an anti-hero whose inner void is made to look reasonable by the dregs around him, but unfortunately this nihilism leeches into the entire film. The result is the lingering feeling of nothing, the absence of reaction made potent by the expectation of something more.
The next big trend in Hollywood is adaptations of biblical stories, which probably means they've run out of proven television shows and comic books to use as source material. Which isn't to say they've run out of comic book adaptations to do well, and also, as any comic book geek will tell you, there are plenty of versions of even the most canonical titles. Judge Dredd was a favorite of mine, the sardonic humor, dystopic surrealism and illustrative flourishes gave it a life and a style all its own. Robocop owes a lot to Judge Dredd, owes more than the Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd (1995) does to the story it was very loosely inspired by.
Being true to a comic book does not necessarily make for a good movie. Comics are in some ways an abstraction of the visual motion that cinema captures. The narrative is aided by the visual style of the artist, but nuance must be captured in static images. Judge Dredd, the comic, had frames filled with flow and dynamic expression, single frames that made the storytelling what it was. Capturing those iconic still frames could be impossible for some directors. Even Zack Snyder, who specializes in these kinds of compositions, stumbles a bit in the narrative of his films.
Pete Travis, who is not a regular in the pages of Entertainment Weekly, manages to capture the iconic imagery of Dredd and keep things dynamic and moving. The frozen expression of Judge Dredd, the weird power of Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), and the massive dystopic ruin of Peach Trees are all pulled from frames of the comic. While the action scenes go beyond the frozen violence of the comics, it mostly stays true to the spirit and veers away from action movie cliches. At least as much as a medium budget, independent, science-fiction film can allow for.
Karl Urban gives Dredd the gravelly voice we always knew he had, and somehow manages to keep his face locked in that iconic scowl for most of the film. Giving life to a character so stoic and locked-away as Dredd can be a task. Urban doesn't go too far, acting up just enough nuance to make him interesting to watch. Lena Headey is wonderful as the deeply twisted Ma-Ma, giving no room to think that she may be misunderstood or sympathetic. While it is clear from the beginning that her psychosis will be her undoing, the real suspense is how much she will destroy as she falls from her drug-addled governance.
Shot by Oscar winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, the film is as stylized as it needs to be, but not artificially gaudy like other comic book films. The film is also wonderfully free of the blue/yellow, blue/orange lighting color palette which dominates science fiction films of all budgets. Imagery shifts with mood, a rare thing to see in genre films in this budget bracket. Cut by Mark Eckersley, the edits are neither distracting nor languid, and approximate the panel shifts of a comic book in a natural way. Sadly, the use of excessive color correction makes the film suffer from too many glossy faces and glowing skin. Dredd is grit, not airbrush.
Judge Dredd was exceptionally violent and merciless, and this film makes no excuses for the tone of the original books. The creeping fascism of Dredd and his world were part of the cynical humor of the book, both as parody of law-enforcement superheroes and a guilty celebration of the anti-hero that lurks in most of us. Pete Travis' film gets most of this, even if there is a sentimentality which feels out of place in Dredd's emotional universe. Judge Dredd is not supposed to evoke the patriotic red, white and blue like Superman does for American readers. Judge Dredd should remind us, like the police response to the RNC protestors in 2008, that violent chaos is not barricaded on one side of law and order.