Tag Archives: William Friedkin

Cruisin’ for abusin’ – Al Pacino’s sleaziest movie


By Ashley Clark

At London’s ICA on Sunday 15 December, film critics Anton Bitel, Katherine McLaughlin and Martyn Conterio host a rare screening of William Friedkin’s Cruising, in double-bill with Interior. Leather Bar., a new film by James Franco and Travis Matthews which ‘re-imagines’ the 40 minutes of explicit material cut from Friedkin’s original film. If you thought Friedkin’s Killer Joe was a nasty piece of work, wait ’til you cop a load of his 1980 film maudit…

[Editor’s note: This article discusses the plot in full, and thus assumes that the reader has either seen the film, or doesn’t mind knowing what happens beforehand.]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, William Friedkin’s S&M serial killer thriller caused a storm of controversy upon release in 1980. If Friedkin had tested the mettle of the general public – and the MPAA – with the crucifix-as-preteen-sex-toy shenanigans of The Exorcist in 1973, he pushed his luck too far with Cruising. In this case, it was a combination of the film’s content – Friedkin reportedly had to make 50 cuts to get an R rating – and the widespread belief that he’d crafted a distasteful work virulent with homophobia, both explicit and implicit, that doomed the film.

In Cruising, Al Pacino plays cop Steve Burns, assigned by his grizzled captain (Paul Sorvino aiming for ‘world weary’, instead achieving ‘quite tired’) to go undercover in New York’s leather bars to hunt down a killer targeting the community. Without further ado, he kisses his girlfriend (Karen Allen) goodbye, dons a pair of chaps and enthusiastically sets on his way. Before long, Burns, simultaneously fascinated and repelled by what he sees (including a hellish fisting session), is in turmoil over his own sexuality and finds himself unable to make much headway on the case. Following a fevered sojourn through an unremittingly seedy landscape, the killer – or at least one killer – is found, before an ambiguous coda suggests that Burns may have murderous tendencies.

A significant proportion of the New York gay community, outraged in their perception of the film’s attitude toward homosexuality, pilloried the shoot to such an extent that much of the sound was destroyed by vocal protest, resulting in the need for dialogue to be overdubbed. In addition to such public opprobrium, Cruising was widely panned by critics unimpressed by its grim hodgepodge of sex, violence and confusing narrative. To add the proverbial icing to the cake, the film secured a Golden Raspberry nomination for worst film of the year – amusingly, it was pipped by Can’t Stop the Music, a bizarre mock-doc about the formation of gay scene legends The Village People, starring Steve Guttenberg!

Is Cruising homophobic? Well, Friedkin argued that in focusing on an absolute extreme of a particular subculture, what he portrayed was not representative of the wider gay experience; moreover, he simply wanted to use the ‘scene’ as a backdrop to a murder mystery. This suggestion carries some dubious merit, but is undercut by the film’s cynical ambiguity, and its propagation of some horribly simplistic psychology which intimates that gay = problem.

The lanky, be-mulleted, leather-clad killer (Richard Cox) is revealed to have had a troubled relationship with his father, and his mantra, presumably directed at Daddy, is a robotically whispered “You made me do this”. In addition to such weak pop psychology, a further misstep is the presence of Burns’ chipper gay roommate Ted (Don Scardino) who exhibits, as suggested by the A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin, “a sitcom perkiness [which] clashes with the brooding intensity of the rest of the film”. The innocent Ted meets the most horrific death of all – a veritable bloodbath. He is punished, presumably for being gay rather than just perky, but we’re never really sure by whom – the nature and circumstance of his death is completely at odds with the others that occur. If it is Burns, who at one point darkly intones to his girlfriend “There’s a lot you don’t know about me”, then Burns is really no more than the archaic stereotype of a gay man so consumed by self-loathing that he is driven to acts of destruction. If it isn’t, then it might have been Ted’s petulant, possessive boyfriend (a nicely piquant turn from The Warriors’ James Remar) or indeed anyone, suggesting an irresistible, widespread malaise within the community – gay murderers everywhere! There is no redemption here, just prurience and misery. Accordingly, Friedkin cannot honestly have been surprised at the negative reaction to his film.


Yet Cruising, despite its myriad flaws, does have certain elements to recommend it. Cinematographer James Contner, who originally wanted to shoot in black and white, does a fantastic job of rendering an oppressive, dread-fuelled atmosphere through a near-monochrome palette of steely blues, greys and blacks. Contributing to the nightmarish vibe is a genuinely odd score from Phil Spector’s ex-right hand man Jack Nitschze, which runs the gamut from dirty proto-house, to twangy, skittering flamenco-jazz that sounds like the duelling banjos kid from Deliverance channelling the spirit of ’70s Miles Davis. Production designer Bruce Weintraub has a field day in populating the landscape with phallic symbols; there are dicks, real and signified, everywhere.

Credit must also go to Pacino for his frazzled, twitchy performance. Permanently covered in a thin film of sweat, with eyes darting askance, he fully convinces as a man increasingly out of his depth and troubled by rumblings of sexual confusion, or at the very least a man terrified his acting career is about to disappear down the toilet. It is truly startling to see a mainstream actor turn up in such an unceasingly sleazy film, and debatable whether a leading man of today would take on such a role (Ryan Gosling was arguably similarly game in Nicolas Winding Refn’s torrid – and comparably horrible – Only God Forgives). Pacino brought some ‘method’ to the party, too. Hilariously, production was delayed because he turned up to the first day’s shoot with, in the words of Friedkin, a “gay” haircut that “didn’t work out”.

In any discussion of Cruising, it would be a crime not to mention the cornucopia of unintentional hilarity on display, which frequently undermines the intense tone the production team carefully assemble. Some of the dialogue – much of it delivered by Sorvino – simply must be heard to be believed: “He intends to flop on the beach and turn nut brown”, “Ever been porked? Ever had a man smoke your pole?”, and the deathlessly serious “You’re my partner… we’re up to our ass in this!” are particular highlights. Then there’s the moment for which Cruising should, above all else, be immortalised: a mountain-sized black cop, dressed in nothing but a jockstrap, cowboy hat and boots, strides unannounced into an interrogation room to send Burns flying with the mother of all dry slaps. It is utterly inexplicable, and yet somehow perfect for a film which constantly treads the thin line between unpleasantness and ridiculousness.

Cruising, with its rum subject matter, dangerously ambiguous messaging and snapshot of a lost (pre-AIDS epidemic) subculture, is a rare example of post-New Hollywood risk-taking at its most discomfiting, and Friedkin at his most anti-social. Ultimately, we’ll never see the likes of it again, which is a shame, because there isn’t a single Al Pacino film released in the last 15 years that couldn’t have been improved by a spot of light fisting.

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.