With two days to go until wrap-up, and a host of journalists having defected to Toronto, one can feel the air not-so-slowly hissing out of the Venice balloon. And while this certainly has its upsides — it no longer takes half an hour to get an espresso as the festival café, for example — it’s difficult to escape the sense that we’re drinking the dregs of the film programme. (If I had a euro for every time I’ve heard the term “front-loaded” uttered around the Lido…)
Or perhaps not — the festival didn’t start to a tune of critical consensus, and it’s not ending that way, either. Last night, the last of the heavyweight Euro auteurs in competition, Aleksandr Sokurov, unveiled his take on Goethe’s “Faust” — and while I thought it a mostly agonizing misstep for the Russian formalist (with a bevy of walkouts suggesting others agreed), ecstatic applause all the way through the closing credits didn’t bode well for critical consensus. Sure enough, Sight & Sound’s Kieron Corless tweeted this morning that the film is “flawless,” and online bookies appear to be knocking down its Golden Lion odds. To each his own cinema, and all that — but I’ll happily let others have mine, in this case.
There appears to be more middle-oriented agreement on this morning’s Competition entry, William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe” (***), which played to a gamely cackling press audience, despite featuring more brutal beatings, full-frontal nudity and tuna casserole than one would usually choose to watch over breakfast. Adapted by Tracy Letts from his own 1993 play — marking the second Friedkin-Letts marriage after 2006’s effectively grimy claustro-horror “Bug” — the new film is a sprightlier effort, insofar as any tale of coked-up matricidal Texas hicks stewing in their own criminal juices can be described as such.
I came to it unfamiliar with Letts’ play, which has some following but predates his more refined breakthrough with “August Osage County”: this early work calls to mind a rougher, ruder Sam Shepard with its surreptitiously hard moral stance and florid New-Old West idiom, but hasn’t much interest in its debased characters beyond their most luridly unattractive actions. Charting the grotesque fallout from a stock dramatic setup — Emile Hirsch’s young hoodlum plots his mother’s murder to cash in on her life insurance policy, hiring Matthew McConaughey’s oleaginous cop-cum-hitman to make a smooth job of it — “Killer Joe” is funny but pitilessly withering in its evocation of undated Southern blue-collar living, casually peppering its script with curled-lip references to thrift stores and fried chicken. Does it think this ill of all such class members or just this one nasty little family?
There’s scarcely enough social context for us to determine the answer, even though Friedkin has more effortfully opened out the proceedings for screen treatment than he did the one-room “Bug” — including some ropey lightning bolts and one particularly extraneous motorcycle chase that takes a crucial confrontation from beginning to beginning. That’s not to say it’s much more cinematic — the previous film’s overt obsession with spatial limitation was, perversely, more conversant with a screen treatment — but it rattles along noisily enough. Meanwhile, when Letts’ writing is as silkily dangerous as it is in a seduction scene between McConaughey and Juno Temple, as the virginal kid sister who gets offered up as collateral for the hit, it doesn’t much matter what medium it’s in.
It’s up to the actors to make this blood-soaked, somewhat heavily directed trifle go down, and they do. Hirsch is shouty and outmatched, but everyone else is on top form: Thomas Haden Church brings spacy presence to the most underwritten role, Gina Gershon overcomes the indignity of being introduced vagina-first to the audience to give her most skankily hard-edged work in years, and it’s difficult to recall the last time McConaughey’s blend of hazy charm and peculiarly foreboding glibness was put to quite such imaginative use on screen.
Best of all is the blazing Juno Temple, as a Tennessee Williams baby-doll with a gift for drawling irony she may not wholly realize; as in Gregg Araki’s recent “Kaboom,” the young Brit has a gift for subtly sexed, off-key comedy that recalls the young Juliette Lewis, and that demands more generously written vehicles. For now, this shallow but kicky curio will do nicely.
I certainly could have done with a shot of Juno Temple in the Israeli competition entry “The Exchange” (**), an almost defiantly bland comedy of everyday absurdism that makes for a disappointing follow-up to director Eran Kolirin’s sweetly eccentric debut “The Band’s Visit.” Politely following the modest travails of a young Ph.D candidate Oden (Rotem Keinan) undergoing what appears to be a rather premature mid-life crisis, as he drifts not-irretrievably from him equally disengaged wife, the film shoots for a Raymond Carver-esque evocation of desperation in the surreally mundane, but hasn’t quite the wit or the precision to pull it off — tidy yet still sluggish 90-minute running time notwithstanding.
The core idea is a smartly subtle one — after finding his weekday routine mildly interrupted one day, the protagonist is sufficiently stimulated to start forcing daily switches that bring him to see his life in a new light, whether it’s getting off the bus at a different stop or dropping his pants in the foyer of his apartment building. There are some gentle chuckles to be had from such isolated skits, but the scale and consequences of his transgressions never escalate: it may be enough for him to mark new psychological territory by throwing his office stapler out of a window, but it isn’t quite enough for us.
At some point, the entirely theoretical nature of his problems — he’s not particularly unhappy with his job or his marriage, and there are no external tensions pressing against him — begins to grate, as does Keinan’s passively fidgety performance. (There’s more warmly suggestive, if ultimately script-stymied, work from Sharon Tal as Oded’s bemused spouse.) Kolirin makes things no easier on himself with a calculatedly washed-out visual approach to the material that is thematically tailored but ultimately self-defeating: you can’t stuff this much beige into every frame and not expect it to rub off.
Finally, a brief word about Abel Ferrara’s own existential crisis, “4:44: Last Day on Earth,” in which the Amerindie veteran delivers on the literal promise of the title, but probably quite cannily senses that the day leading up the apocalypse wouldn’t be more noteworthy than any other. Venice programmers didn’t seem to have an awful lot of faith in Ferrara’s vision, cancelling the morning’s press screening and shifting it to 11pm — so after a heavy day’s viewing, I confess I only made it through 30 minutes of Willem Dafoe meditating, glowering and tamely fondling his girlfriend’s ass, before I myself decided to live the day as if it were my last, and walked out. I suppose that’s a success of sorts.
[Photo: Voltage Films]