Friedkin's 'Killer Joe' gets an NC-17

Posted by · 6:27 pm · February 29th, 2012

It may be Cannes that generates all the media-friendly controversy, but as it turns out, it was the Venice Film Festival that was quietly hatching the eventual NC-17 films. First came “Shame,” which received the MPAA’s most severe rating for its plentiful sexual activity and generous exposure of Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan’s privates. Now, a less celebrated Venice title, William Friedkin’s adaptation of the Tracy Letts play “Killer Joe,” has been similarly branded ahead of its summer release Stateside.

LD Entertainment, the Friedkin film’s new-on-the-block distributor, plans to appeal the MPAA’s decision, which was made on the grounds of “graphic aberrant content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality.” They believe “Killer Joe” is closer to R-rated material; I agree with them.

The film, a nastily funny if stylistically clumsy black comedy starring Matthew McConaughey as a grossly corrupt cop hired by Emile Hirsch’s scuzzy Southern hick to kill off a family member, is casually violent, kinkily erotic and features Gina Gershon doing inappropriate things with fried chicken. You probably wouldn’t take your mom to see it.

But it’s been six months since I saw the film, and while my memory of specific offenses may have faded, I don’t remember any taboos being tested either. Critics after the screening were generally amused; certainly, no one was offended.

My initial reaction to the news of the rating was that I couldn’t recall anything in the film that might warrant such treatment. Returning to my September review of the film, however, I see that I specifically note Gershon’s character being “introduced vagina-first to the audience”; perhaps that sets the bar for what the MPAA finds more out-of-bounds than, say, critics do.

On the face of it, the rating is a fair one — the film likely isn’t suitable for many viewers under the age of 17. The problem, of course, remains the stigma irrationally attached to it by the public, the media and exhibitors alike, perhaps because NC-17s are handed out too rarely and selectively to feel justified in many instances. It’s an issue Fox Searchlight commendably tried to address last year with “Shame,” as they openly accepted the rating as, in their words, a “badge of honor”; a major-category Oscar nomination might have gone some way toward validating their approach, but it seems the industry remains shy. 

“Killer Joe” doesn’t stand to lose too much over the MPAA’s decision. The star presence of Matthew McConaughey (never better, incidentally) notwithstanding, its commercial prospects are as minimal as its awards prospects; at the very least, the hitherto low-lying Friedkin will probably be encouraged to hear people still recognize his edge. And whether LD win their appeal or not, the rating drums up some welcome publicity for the film ahead of its US premiere at SXSW next month.

Meanwhile, it’s not just NC-17 ratings being fought this week. The Weinstein Company continues to challenge the MPAA over the R rating given their March release “Bully,” a reportedly hard-hitting documentary about bullying in US schools, aimed at precisely the audience that would be excluded by an R. The MPAA’s official explanation for the rating — recently upheld on appeal — is given as “some language,” which apparently extends to six uses of the word “fuck.”

This seems an absurdly literal-minded application of the rules on the MPAA’s part, discriminating against a film aspiring to engage and educate teenagers on a topic that pertains directly to their own lives, for the crime of repeating an everyday expletive they known already. The Weinsteins were clearly justified in their appeal, and feel strongly enough about the matter to threaten to release the film unrated.

This, in turn, has prompted a rather rash response from the National Association of Theater Owners, who claim that such a move on the Weinsteins’ part will result in the film being treated as an NC-17 regardless, which benefits precisely no one. I suspect the solution might lie, as it did with the Weinsteins’ similarly questionably R-rated “The King’s Speech,” in releasing an alternative, PG-13-ready cut of the film with the offending language deleted, but I commend their resistance.

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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