Tag Archives: thriller

PPH end of year round-up part 1 | Editor’s top 10, the nearlies, and the never-weres

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There seems to have been a developing trend in year-end film lists for the listmaker to casually drop a self-deprecating reference to the sheer arbitrariness of the task they’re engaging with. Well, I just enjoy making lists, and to paraphrase 90’s pop favourites The Cranberries, everybody else is doing it, so why can’t I? My ambitions for the list are fairly modest: that a) it might provoke a bit of discussion, and b) it might inspire people to go out and catch some good films they may have missed.

For consistency’s sake (and to couch the list in some kind of context), I’ve only selected films that were released in the UK in the calendar year 2012. This means there’s no place for some fare I greatly enjoyed at festivals, including Pablo Larraín’s astonishing docudrama No, Adam Leon’s sprightly New York fable Gimme The Loot, Ken Burns’ riveting documentary The Central Park Five, or Ashim Ahluwalia’s gloriously seedy Miss Lovely, all of which should (or definitely will, in No and Gimme The Loot’s cases) hit UK screens in 2013.

Here, then, is the Top 10, in alphabetical (not numerical: that taxonomic task was too tough) order.

Amour (dir. Michael Haneke)

Austrian director Haneke (who “took to Twitter” this year with hilarious results), produced two truly outstanding performances from Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant for this stately study of the devastating effects of dementia on an elderly, close-knit couple. It didn’t necessarily say anything overtly profound, but it was profoundly moving, not least because the two actors so fearlessly confronted issues that, owing to their advanced age, they would surely be dealing with when the cameras stopped rolling. Regardless of how Haneke’s exactitude made one feel on a moral level (Riva has a truly upsetting nude scene), it made for searing drama.

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Barbara (dir., Christian Petzold)

Petzold’s slow-burning drama about a nurse plotting her escape from banal early 80s East Germany was a fascinating, beautifully composed character study which had me hooked from minute one. In the title role, Nina Hoss was extraordinary. Her surface coldness was a vivid semi-subversion of the passion, fear and political courage that bubbled underneath. When her character eventually thawed, the monumental rush of relief and excitement I felt was testament to the poise and the sublime technical control of her performance. All that said, I also really enjoyed Andrew Tracy’s perceptive, skeptical review in the ever excellent Reverse Shot magazine.

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Bill Cunningham New York (dir., Richard Press) | full review

My favourite doc of the year profiled the octogenarian, workaholic New York Times photographer in breezy, joyous style. Likeable, eccentric, talented and ultimately unknowable, Cunningham was the perfect subject. As I gushed at the time, “[BCNY is] not just enjoyable; it transcends documentary filmmaking to become a hymn to passionate, singular creativity.” I also said, “It’s aptly titled; encapsulating his world, a breathless rush where subject and location are inseparable, indivisible. Punctuation would just get in the way. It’s Bill’s city.” So there we go.

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Breathing (dir., Karl Markovics) | full review

Like Barbara, Markovics’ initially austere (and very well-acted) directorial debut crept up on me, possessing an unexpected power. Focusing on the rehabilitation and subsequent growth into manhood of a 19-year-old offender, it was a real slow-burner about a tough subject that somehow managed to end up genuinely uplifting rather than depressing. Though such a comparison may seem a tad arbitrary, I much preferred it to the Dardennes’ The Kid With A Bike, which struck me as far more overdetermined, protracted and fantastical than many of its more effusive cheerleaders had suggested.

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Holy Motors (dir., Leos Carax) | full review

Moment for moment, Carax’s Holy Motors was the most fun I had in the cinema this year. Following a day in the life of mysterious everyman (and he really is every man) Mr. Oscar, played by chameleonic superstar Denis Lavant, it was an episodic, unpredictable and dazzling tragicomedy packed with bizarre jokes, berserk stylistic diversions, and myriad loving cinematic references. Above and beyond the craziness, the film hit me on a gut level. I saw a brave self-portrait of a filmmaker self-reflexively admitting the absolute folly of striving to present “reality” onscreen. And, most heartbreakingly of all, I saw, in Mr. Oscar, a deeply moving portrayal of the exhausting, crippling effect of the various roles which we (the human race – I’m aiming high here, folks) force ourselves to play, over and over again, on a daily basis. Oh man, and those chimps at the end: was there a more bittersweet moment at the movies this year?

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Keep The Lights On (dir., Ira Sachs)

No film swam around my head this year like Ira Sachs’ elliptical, New York-set drama. Focusing on a long, doomed relationship between a sensitive documentary filmmaker and a drug addicted lawyer, the semi-autobiographical KTLO was marked by fiercely unguarded performances, gorgeous cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis, and extensive use of the woozy music of late musician Arthur Russell. Not only that, with its plot thread about late queer artist Avery Willard (not to mention its championing of Russell), it actively looked to celebrate and excavate a particular section of American subcultural history. A deep, warm, discomfiting nightmare dream of a film.

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Killer Joe (dir., William Friedkin) | full review

Evil has a voice, and it sounds a lot like veteran director William Friedkin collaborating with playwright Tracy Letts for a second time. And guess what, evil’s a whole lot of fun too. This rollicking redneck neo-noir pushed the boundaries of taste (just ask Colonel Sanders), and provided Matthew McConaughey (an actor for whom I’ve never – Dazed and Confused aside – had much time for) with his greatest role to date. Rough, sexy and surprising, Killer Joe was the best thriller of the year. In the interests of full disclosure, I also got off on quite how much it seemed to piss people off, too.

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Magic Mike (dir., Steven Soderbergh)

Despite a marketing campaign which did its level best to make it as difficult as possible for the heterosexual male to walk up and buy a ticket, Magic Mike emerged as one of the most purely enjoyable films of the year. Expertly helmed by the redoubtable Steven Soderbergh, it was a hazily (and gloriously) shot Floridian tale which balanced a keen view of contemporary economics with a host of cutely quoted influences, from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights to John Cassavetes’ fondly sleazy The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Channing Tatum was great in the lead role, and McConaughey (again; who’d a thunk it?) shone in a flashy supporting role as Dallas, the oiled-up, stripping patriarch.

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Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (dir., Nuri Bilge Ceylan) | feature

Boringly thrilling? Or thrillingly boring? Either way, Ceylan delivered a cinematic oxymoron of rare depth and panache with this rich, long and deeply atmospheric procedural. When it finished, I genuinely felt like I’d been locked in the cinema all night with the film’s cast of exhausted, devastated characters. Existential malaise never tasted so good.

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Sightseers (dir., Ben Wheatley) | full review

The surprise of the year, for me. After the crushing disappointment of the second half of Wheatley’s sophomore feature Kill List, my expectations for this black comedy were low. But what began as a cute riff on Martin McDonagh’s play ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’ swiftly turned into something much richer and darker. Sightseers was a merciless excavation of the murkily unpalatable underbelly of the British national character, filtered through a host of key tropes from the history of classic passive-aggressive British TV comedy. What’s more, all of this venom was set against Laurie Rose’s exceptional cinematography, which highlighted England’s natural beauty like few films have deigned to do. It stayed in my head for days afterward.

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The nearlies

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There were a few films painfully close to squeezing into my top 10. One was Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson’s “non-narrative, non-verbal 65mm journey” Samsarawhich made me feel like I was flying at the time, but wore off fairly quickly afterward. Another film whose lasting effects didn’t quite match up to the visceral experience of watching it was Gareth Evans’ gripping (and absurdly violent) martial arts cracker The Raid (full review). The seediest film I saw this year was Beauty, Oliver Hermanus’ exquisitely composed and extremely disturbing tale of illicit obsession in contemporary South Africa.

I also really enjoyed a couple of big blockbusters (I’m only a preening arthouse dilettante for some of the time); Sam Mendes’ Skyfall had the lot: a good story, some great stunts, truly beautiful cinematography (kudos Roger Deakins) and, in Javier Bardem, a genuinely brilliant villain. Seeing it at a full-to-bursting public screening on its seventh (!) week of release underlined the extent to which this Bond bonanza was ‘event’ cinema at its best. I was also taken with Avengers Assemble; chaotic, overlong and in-jokey for sure, but also a hell of a lot of fun which possessed a keen sense of its own ridiculousness. It made me laugh like a drain on more than one occasion.

On the other side of the ‘fun spectrum’, Steve McQueen’s Shame, which sent me into paroxysms of praise at last year’s London Film Festival, cooled on me like few films in recent memory, not least in response to a discussion with my wife about the film’s questionable sexual politics. Her excellent piece on that theme, ‘Shame and Gender’, can be read here. Oh, and despite Mark Cousins’ pretty bizarre rant (I like him normally), I enjoyed Argo lots too.

2012 was also an excellent year for documentaries; I greatly enjoyed Malik Bendjelloul’s revelatory musical excavation piece Searching for Sugarman, and was very moved by Call Me Kuchu, a sensitive and shocking study of the day-to-day lives of brave LGBT campaigners in Uganda. Amy Berg’s West of Memphis was a powerfully made and propulsive dissection of a grim failure of US justice, but let itself down by indulging in some of the formal shock tactics it decried its villains (the West Memphis Three prosecutors) for using. Finally, though it was no doubt an acquired taste (you had to buy into the myth of LCD Soundsystem as one of the modern titans of popular music to swallow its precious combination of hushed reverence and relentless solipsism), I was ultimately seduced by Shut Up And Play The Hits.

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The never-weres

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There were a handful of films – very highly rated by people whose opinions I generally trust – that I never got round to seeing. These included: Bela Tarr’s final film The Turin Horse, James Marsh’s Troubles-based thriller Shadow Dancer, Jafar Panahi’s “not a film” This Is Not A Film, performance art doc Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, David Cronenberg’s limo-fest Cosmopolis, and child soldier drama War Witch (which I’m not sure ever actually got/will get a proper theatrical release). I hope to get around to all of these sooner rather than later.

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Thank you for reading. Do pop your head around the door for the second part of our end-of-year round-up, which will be with you shortly.

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Looper | review

Rian Johnson’s Looper is not only a welcome return to form after the quirk overload of 2008’s The Brothers Bloom, but also sees the director achieving the rare feat of crossing over into the mainstream while retaining pretty much all of his stylistic quirks. Johnson is a man of vision, and, luckily for cinemagoers, seems to have producers who are wise to his not-inconsiderable talents.

Of course, it’s the future. Joseph Gordon-Levitt – made up beyond recognition and doing an uncanny take on Bruce Willis’ off-key manner – plays Joe, a mob goon who assassinates people from the future’s future – a ‘looper’. It’s a grubby line of work usually ending with a grim payoff – what’s known as ‘closing the loop’: murdering your future self. Bruce Willis is the older version of Joe who’s determined not to die – and has some ominous information that could change everything.

Looper has at some stage been compared to The Matrix, a comparison stemming from pure laziness on the part of some hack, picked up on by the press team in a move (albeit an understandable one) no doubt designed to get bums on seats. At the risk of sounding pompous, comparing Looper to The Matrix is a bit like comparing a Madlib album to Dr Dre’s Chronic 2001, Grizzly Bear to Mumford and Sons or Fiona Apple to Alanis Morisette. While those comparisons aren’t necessarily formulated to express the relative merit of each film, they do serve to highlight that, despite Looper‘s mass appeal, it’s still pushing for something a little deeper.

If a comparison to a Keanu Reeves science fiction film were to have to be made (oh, go on then!), Looper would probably end up a lot closer to A Scanner Darkly – which took the novel approach of sorting out Reeves’ acting by turning him into a cartoon. A Scanner Darkly was also, it should be remembered, a film that was misunderstood in a lot of quarters – a fate that seems entirely possible for this film if audiences go into it expecting the kind of depressing bangs-whizzes-and-relentless-gun-battle fare that has become the norm since The Matrix ‘changed the game’ (ruined everything), and Christopher Nolan ‘changed the game’ (added a snow level).

This film’s refreshing difference lies in its concern, not in plot information factoid overkill, but the human element of the tale. It’s very much a character-driven story, and the acting and casting are superb. To list the great performances in this film would be pointless, as they’re all pretty flawless, but a special mention should go to young star Pierce Gagnon who is terrifying as Cid, a preternaturally mature child that Joe comes across in the course of his journey.

As in his debut Brick, which cleverly subverted the conventions of film-noir, Johnson simply uses the science-fiction genre as a way of exploring themes that interest him – memory, fate and consequence. The clever move he makes is to have the film breeze over its concept (setting out its sci-fi stall, so to speak) in the opening few minutes. In this way, Johnson dispels the impulse to pick the story to pieces. Either you take it or leave it.

In some senses Looper has the makings of a slick film aiming at a bigger target audience than Johnson’s previous efforts – but as a writer/director he also isn’t afraid to take the leftfield option at the risk of showing a rougher edge. It’s far from perfect, and at times experiences something of a lack of coherent movement between acts, but in taking more risks it rewards the viewer with a richly emotional and thoughtful centre.

Unlike some genre staples, it doesn’t make a song and dance over instances of directorial inventiveness, of which there are many. It’s playful, rather than po-faced. It has no cartoonishly alluring latex-clad sex-token girl-trope cartwheeling about the place – although Emily Blunt’s single mum is a subversive nod to the type and does simultaneously function as a love interest for Gordon-Levitt’s character. The action sequences are muted and interesting rather than bombastic. Its tone is nuanced between light and dark and (like Duncan Jones’ 2011 Source Code) it doesn’t simply rely on a dark, gritty colour palette to make it feel weighty.

In the end Looper’s smartness lies deeper than some smug pseudo-philosophical meditations. It also doesn’t literally end on a shot of the main protagonist flying away like superman to a Rage Against the Machine tub-thumper – all wise moves on balance, when the idea is to get some brainboxes working, rather than a monster truckload of fifteen year-old boys’ throbbers pulsing.

Looper is in cinemas from Fri 28 September. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.

Killer Joe | review

Editor’s note: The following review contains major plot points, including discussion of the final scene.

William Friedkin’s smartly paced, deliciously watchable film of Tracey Letts’ 1998 play mines a rich seam of gothic Americana in its portrayal of a greedy, incompetent family tearing itself to pieces.

Like the director’s The Exorcist (1973), Killer Joe examines the effect of a malignant outsider imposing itself upon an American family unit. However, while The Exorcist’s devil was a distinctly uninvited guest, Matthew McConaughey’s insidious Joe may be one of the first bogeymen in cinema to be actively welcomed into a position of destructive power.

The obliging family are the Smiths, who dwell in a cramped, fetid Dallas trailer park home, and conspire in a doomed plan to claim the insurance money of soon-to-be-departed matriarch Adele. Detective/hitman Joe (the only character in the film with anything approaching a code of ethics), in lieu of cold, hard cash, decides to take daughter Dottie (Juno Temple) as, essentially, a sexual prisoner until the funds appear; a suggestion actively encouraged by the family. With the facial hair and mind of a goat, Thomas Haden Church’s Ansel (the dad) makes for a transcendentally dim, affectless foil to Emile Hirsch’s wheedling catalyst/capitalist son Chris; an inept, desperate whiner.

Friedkin coaxes some superb performances to bring this unpleasant world – and Letts’ earthy, astringent dialogue – to life. A lithe, imposing McConaughey palpably delights in the opportunity to shake off a decade of undemanding nice-guy roles. Following in a long line of morally ambiguous Friedkin anti-hero cops (think The French Connection’s ‘Popeye’ Doyle, Cruising’s Steve Burns or To Live And Die In L.A.’s Richard Chance), his Joe is simmering and sexy, with a transformation to messianic beast in the film’s long final scene that’s electrifying.

Through Joe, Letts seems to be brutally satirizing a particular idea of middle America’s dependence on Christianity. In a cleverly ironic perversion of Americana tropes, Joe adopts the cadence and fervour of an evangelical Southern preacher when subjecting Sharla to a grotesque sexual assault with another emblem of American consumption: the chicken drumstick. Note too the psychotic manner in which Joe attempts to impose Christian family traditions upon the Smiths after his brutal assault (“Now, who’s gonna say grace?”)

McConaughey is matched by Temple, who nails the required mixture of vagueness, innocence and allure to make the pivotal character of Dottie believable; their chemistry aids a plot strand that’s fairytale of the darkest hue. The virginal Dottie, prone to sleepwalking, seems to exist in the liminal space between wake and sleep, muttering vague aphorisms, and blankly recalling childhood traumas. Like some lost character from an Angela Carter novel, her inquisitive young mind, then body, is colonized by this handsome, authoritative agent of institutional corruption. He’s her prince and her wolf. Her lover and her replacement father. And, as the film ends, the father of her unborn child too? Their extended dinner date scene, filmed in long, unhurried takes, is a deliciously awkward, erotic, and troublesome moment. If, like Dottie, we’re being taken in by Joe’s charisma, that’s exactly what Friedkin wants.

Though the director indulges in some cliched play-to-film tropes (why must it always be dark and stormy outside?), he handles the thriller aspects of the script smartly and without fuss. Similarly, his rendering of Letts’ milieu is confident and concomitant with the thematic darkness and moral murk that marks the best of his canon. Unlike Justin Kurzel’s claustrophobic, singularly depressing Snowtown (2011), however, Killer Joe adopts a bravely comic take on a crumbling underclass in which the the moral goalposts have not so much shifted as disappeared from view entirely. In ironically peppering the frame with heartland Christian iconography (crosses and flags), Friedkin conjures a land where understanding of religion has gone to seed; where the extreme breakdown of family life is accelerated by the the characters’ aggressive, borderline-absurd adoption of conspicuously capitalist, ruggedly individualist values in the face of poverty and cultural breakdown.

Whereas Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America(2012) explicitly cast television as the root of evil in contemporary society, Friedkin places the TV as an insidious opiate; a constantly distracting presence, flickering throughout countless scenes. Ansel is barely able to concentrate on pimping out his daughter, so engrossed and amused is he by the monster trucks on the box. It’s significant that Joe pointedly destroys the family television before his final rampage; one suspects that this material loss will affect Ansel more than that of his own son. (There’s no internet connection round these parts, meaning that Dottie can‘t even follow her beloved Justin Bieber – his image adorns her walls – on Twitter.)

However, Killer Joe falters when the script strives for American tragedy, such as Chris’ Steinbeckian lament about “raisin’ rabbits”. Chris’ late-blooming morality, though necessary to keep the plot ticking over, is the film’s least convincing element, unaided by Hirsch’s performance, which is the thinnest on show.

The best joke in this frequently funny film comes when Sharla (a brilliant Gina Gershon) picks at a loose thread in the shoulder of Ansel’s ill-fitting suit as they nervously await news of Adele’s life insurance policy. With very little resistance, the entire arm falls away. The characters’ plans – like their moral fabric – do not withstand much scrutiny, and Letts and Friedkin delight in poking away. In a recent interview, the director cited the Coen brothers as his favourite contemporary American filmmakers, and as the dust settles on the final carnage in the Smith kitchen, the mind can’t help but wander to that incredulous question posed by Fargos earnest cop Marge Gunderson: “And for what? For a little bit of money.”

Though at times here it’s tempting to see Friedkin as Jerry Springer with a camera – gawking at human detritus – there is a serious undercurrent that breaks through the black comedy; a sadness at the abject moral decay on show in this glum, savage middle America.

Killer Joe is in cinemas now.

The PPH Interview | William Friedkin

In a recent interview, Permanent Plastic Helmet found the charismatic director of classics like The Exorcist and The French Connection – and brilliant new thriller Killer Joe – in a playful but outspoken mood. Peering though trademark outsize glasses and looking unmistakably Hollywood (albeit from a different age), Friedkin elucidated on a number of topics, from his directorial process, to censorship, to typecasting. He also went in-depth on Killer Joea twisted, trailer-trash noir about a greedy family who enlist a dirty cop to do their bidding with disastrous consequences.

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Matthew McConaughey and Gina Gershon in Killer Joe

Killer Joe marks Friedkin’s second collaboration with playwright Tracey Letts after 2006’s baroque, little-seen Bug, and he is full of praise for the man whose play he describes as “a gift from the movie gods”. So what is it about Letts’ work that attracts him to it? “We have the same worldview  – we see the world in the same way: absurd. We see characters that embody both good and evil. we don’t see people as totally idealistic. There is potential for great good and great evil in all of us.”

Friedkin’s canon is riven with darkness and moral ambiguity, and it seems he relishes the challenge of dealing with the darker side of humanity in his work. He even has some surprising words for one of history’s greatest tyrants: “I hate to say this because it always gets misinterpreted, but if you read any of the biographies of Hitler, you see that even Hitler had some commendable things about him and I could state them. Not that I’d want to. He’s a candidate for one of the worst 2 or 3 people in history, but there are things in Hitler’s life that surprisingly make you understand he was a human being, not a devil or a creature from another planet. Not an alien”.

Not quite Hitler, but nevertheless capable of monstrous acts, dirty cop Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) joins a long line of ambiguous anti-heroes in Friedkin’s work, from The French Connection’s Jimmy Doyle to Cruising’s Steve Burns and To Live And Die In L.A.’s Richard Chance. So how did Friedkin feel about the character? “I know cops like that [Joe] in Chicago and NYC. They’re all around. There’s a guy I know – a homicide detective in NYC – we call him Uncle Mort, who for 20 years was a cop but also did hits for the Italian mob. I can’t tell you I understand how that comes about other than I know that these people are capable. I’ve seen it. Yes there is a thin line; its very often crossed. the best cops are the ones who most think like criminals. I’ve met such people, and believe me I can’t say I understand from whence they came… what crooked timber of humanity produced such a character but I know they exist. I find them fascinating.”

Though well acted by the entire ensemble (Juno Temple is a revelation as the virginal “retainer”, while Gina Gershon’s shameless hussy reminds us what we’ve been missing), it’s McConaughey as the eponymous Joe who steals the show. Exuding a palpable glee at shaking off 15 years of easygoing, undemanding romantic leads, a startling McConaughey grabs the role with both hands. What was it about the unlikely Texan that intrigued Friedkin?

“I don’t believe in typecasting. McConaughey is from that area. He was born at the Oklahoma/Texas border. He knows those characters, his accent is right and natural. He’s a very good actor. People didn’t realise that because in Hollywood terms he’s so good looking. If you’re in Hollywood all they want you to do is show up, they don’t want you to act. You just have to take off your shirt and be convincing as the lover of some lovely actress. That’s all that’s called upon to many of the great stars. But like McConaughey what they really wanna do is act in a role that can challenge them and find an audience. The studios don’t want that. They make a fortune. Matthew was making $10m a picture just playing a kind of good looking dude who got the girl. A lot of actors like Di Caprio are trying to stretch out; Matthew obviously could, and had the chops. That’s his desire. he could go on and make those rom coms, looking like he does. but that’s not what he wants or who he is.” And was McConaughey Friedkin’s first choice? “It was Woody Allen, but he wasn’t available!”

Friedkin directing Emile Hirsch on the set of Killer Joe

The cast, as is pretty much par for the course in a Friedkin film, is put through their paces, and the director is clear that it’s important to make actors feel comfortable. “I create an atmosphere in which they [the cast] can feel free to create, be on same page with me – the director – and the writer of the script. Once you’re able to give an actor that, you’ve given them an atmosphere, even the crew. Once they feel they’re free to make a mistake and create, they do their best work. That’s what I found by trial and error.”

Killer Joe, despite its darkness, is a very funny film, though Friedkin asked his cast to play it straight. “That’s what most really great comedy is about, the fact that you believe in these characters. They’re not passing judgement on the characters they’re playing, they’re not saying ‘look at me, I’m a clown’ – unless you’re Jerry Lewis, you know, someone like that. The dark humour that comes out of, let’s say, farce or absurdity is done by characters playing it for real. As in Dr Strangelove – I believed all those characters that Peter Sellers played, including Dr Strangelove, who is very reminiscent of Henry Kissinger, who I happen to know! So no, you encourage them to make it real, and to keep it real. The humour is built in, it’s in the piece. It couldn’t work if the characters aren’t believable. For example, when Charlie Chaplin played the Little Tramp, you believed this guy was a little tramp. You weren’t thinking actor. Laurel and Hardy, they weren’t like that. Abbott and Costello, the Goon Show, those guys were making it real, and that’s why it’s funny. That’s what I did with my cast.”

Though not overly interested in discussing how he managed to balanced Killer Joe’s various genres (“I think that’s a good question for the writers of the New Testament!”), Friedkin is particularly engaged on the subject of censorship. This an issue with which Friedkin is intimately acquainted, having caused a storm of controversy with The Exorcist in 1973 and been forced to make 50 cuts to 1980’s Cruising to secure an R rating. Though the majority of Killer Joe could hardly be described as family friendly, it’s one prolonged moment of Southern-fried freakery toward its conclusion which likely secured the film’s NC-17 rating; a rating which Friedkin appealed. “We lost the appeal narrowly”, bemoans Friedkin, “…13 to nothing!”

“The appeals board is different from the ratings board”, says Friedkin, “An anonymous group of people. Nobody outside of their relatives know who they are. We don’t know who they are, where they came from, what qualifies them to give a rating. In my case they wanted me to do much more than make trims. they wanted to do what the US govt said it was doing in Vietnam. They said we have to destroy this country in order to save it. And thats what the ratings board would have had me do to Killer Joe.”

Has, as suggested in Kirby Dick’s film This Film is Not Yet Rated, the MPAA stacked the deck against independent films? “Violence is more acceptable to the MPAA than sexuality because they are always uptight. Interestingly though they will find a way around these problems for a major studio film. For example, the recent adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which has a very graphic anal rape scene later followed by a vengeance scene, that was one of the most violent scenes I have ever seen. There isn’t anything like that in Killer Joe. They are against the independent films and why? Because they can be. They perceive violence in the studio movies as cartoonish when it happens in a film like The Avengers, so they get away with the murder of thousands in the film. If the violence is too real for them they slam it, especially with independent films.”

An animated Friedkin continues, “You’ll never see a major studio film with an NC-17. They’ve all gone in in the dead of night and made a few trims and shown the rating board that theyre prepared to bow toward them and recognise their superiority legality (which they are not) they are not a legally binding anything, its a self-govering body of the member companies of the MPAA.”

Al Pacino in Friedkin’s Cruising – a film which required 50 cuts to secure an R rating

Yet an element of circumspection sneaks through when the director remarks, “It’s better than what they had before which was a literal censorship code; the Hays Code. Those guys could cut a movie before it went out. They’d read a script which has two people in bed together. The studio head or the writer or producer or whatever would say “but they’re married!”, and they’d say “I don’t care. We can’t show two people in bed together!” They would literally cut scripts before they were made. at least they don’t do that.”

Furthermore, Friedkin laments the passing of the Hollywood in which he came of age as a director. “There were socially conscious films, some were cathartic films that didn’t provide easy answers to life and didnt have a guy with a letter on his chest flying around solving crimes. It wasn’t the dress-up costume show of Hollywood today. Studios are more interested in a sure thing which means a comic book or videogame adaptation. That’s what Hollywood movies are”. His frustration with the modern-day Hollywood scene is clear to see, and it’s refreshing to hear.

As our allotted time draws all too quickly to a close, Friedkin spends his last couple of minutes discussing the contemporary directors he admires. “Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers. And, eh… who else?” After a pause. “Well, the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson!” But after some pondering time, “I like Wes Anderson’s work. I think he’s an interesting and original filmmaker. But I’ve been most influenced by many others like Hitchcock, and Orson Welles, the French New Wave, and the English New Wave of the 1960s. Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger. Those were the films that influenced me. The Italian neo-realists, and some of the American classic directors of the 40s and 50s like John Ford of course, Joseph Mankiewicz. And the directors of the musicals, like Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen. I know Mr. Donen, he’s still alive, I’m a great admirer of his work.“ And with that, our interview with a true cinematic feather-ruffler is over. How enjoyable it was.

Killer Joe is in cinemas now.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a mostly gripping, yet slightly smoke-and-mirrors study of one young woman’s psychological distress following a traumatic experience, marked by an excellent central performance from newcomer Elizabeth Olsen (yes, younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley).

The film begins with our heroine Martha escaping a commune in the Catskills to find refuge in the house inhabited by her elder sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (played by the very English Hugh Dancy). Gradually, it is revealed that the troubled Martha has extricated herself from a sinister cult presided over by the shamanic Patrick (John Hawkes) and populated by a host of servile young women and none-too-bright young bucks.

The film cross-cuts back and forth from past to present, augmented by some terrific, slinky transitions from editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier that blur the line between real and imagined, while an abstract threat constantly lingers in the background thanks to the atmospheric use of sound and a discordant score.

Olsen is superb, alternately fierce, cocksure, naive and vulnerable, and it will be no surprise if lazy journalists (not me, you understand) begin to refer to her as this year’s Jennifer Lawrence who, of course, gave good woman-in-backwoods-peril opposite Hawkes in the Oscar-nominated indie Winter’s Bone. Hawkes as Patrick cuts a wiry, even disturbingly thin, figure and has a charismatic verve, though his rent-a-cult aphorisms begin to pall after a while, and the commune and its inner workings are particularly – and disappointingly – thinly drawn.

Within this tense thriller lie some interesting themes, for example the binary opposition of Martha’s past and present living conditions. A heavily influenced and naive Martha seems to conflate the rural simplicity and routine of the commune with freedom despite the various abuses she has suffered, and rebels against the monotonous materialism personified by the bland domesticity of Sarah and Ted’s married life. Dancy (whose stiff, declamatory Englishness is used for something approaching comic effect) delivers a pompous dinner table defence of capitalism which goes some way to underlining her mistrust of such conformist living.

Martha Marcy May Marlene, however, is far from perfect. Even with the knowledge that much of what happens is filtered through the unreliable psychological state of our heroine, there are one or two staggering plot inconsistencies that undermine the drama to damaging effect. It would be wrong to give too much away, but you will certainly be wondering why the cult let Martha get away so easily when you find out what they’ve been up to, and perhaps even more frustrating is Lucy’s howlingly irritating disinterest in finding out about the details of her younger sister’s ordeal – it takes over an hour for her to conclude that the clearly distressed Martha “might need help”, and she never seriously enquires about what she has been through.

Despite its flaws, Martha Marcy May Marlene is well worth seeing, and marks a promising debut for writer-director Sean Durkin, provided he goes down the route of adding a bit more substance to his films.