November 5, 2012

It's just another Murder Monday! Snowtown and Killer Joe

As promised, I've now started doing my reviews according to a daily theme. I've added some new tabs to the navigation bar above so you can follow my progress and find the posts easier should you have any desire to ever revisit them.

Today, of course, is Monday so it's the beginning of my "Murder Monday" series. I was going to call it "Macabre Monday" until it dawned on me that there were really only two or three truly "macabre" movies in existence. Pardon the pun, but I didn't want this series of posts to be that short-lived.

Anyway, the two titles which I've chosen to review today are "Snowtown" and "Killer Joe". They may not appear to have much in common apart from being made in 2011, but bear with me because they do.

Snowtown (2011)

"Snowtown" is an Australian movie based on the true story of "The Snowtown Murders" which happened between 1992-1999. You can tell it's the '90s because they have a Sega Megadrive in it.

Although a great deal of artistic licence is used to make some characters more sympathetic than others, make no mistake about it, these are all bad people. There's not one character in the whole thing who is likeable although Daniel Henshall, who plays John Bunting, is certainly outstanding in the role of a very charismatic psychopath. Lucas Pittaway, on the other hand, who plays Jamie Vlassakis, doesn't really do a lot apart from stare and act like he has Asperger's syndrome. I still have no idea if it's intentional.

As you know, I'm a horror guy not a true crime aficionado. I find most films which deal with real serial killers to be very boring indeed, but "Snowtown" hooked me because I didn't know anything about it. In fact, if it hadn't been for a "horror reviewer" (and I use that term loosely) on YouTube who was overpraising the disturbing aspects of the movie, I probably wouldn't have watched it at all.

Suffice it to say that there are a couple of ridiculously nasty moments of torture and murder which might be quite harrowing for most people to watch. For me, I'm tempted to say, "Meh, I've seen worse." It's not that I didn't enjoy "Snowtown", but the good stuff such as garrotting and toenails being ripped out is sparse amidst all the somewhat confusing drama.

Even for anyone familiar with the story beforehand, the conflation of certain events makes it hard to tell what's going on and in what order. I watched "Snowtown" cold, read up on it, and then watched it again to see if it made any difference. Unfortunately, it made things more confusing as I tried to associate the real victims with their dramatised equivalents.

"Snowtown" is clearly a low-budget, gritty piece of filmmaking, but it could be taken as a really black comedy if you didn't know any better. I had the same problem with "Chopper" (2000) so it must be an Australian thing which I'm just not getting. In both "Chopper" and "Snowtown", the awkward and uncomfortable way that characters speak to each other is all rather deadpan and far more amusing to my British ears than it's probably meant to be.

The ending sort of fizzles out which, depending on your taste, may not be very satisfying. If there is ever an American movie of the same subject matter, it will probably concentrate on a trial and throw all the gruesome story elements in as flashbacks so it's all down to how much you prefer more linear Aussie storytelling without any dramatic onscreen resolution. Personally, I would have liked to have seen how the killers were caught.

Killer Joe (2011)

Moving right along to "Killer Joe", this is another very linear story which uses its "in medias res" elements so sparingly that the exposition is organic rather than forced. In an age where characterisation has become contrived padding for set pieces of action, I appreciate such old school subtleties.

Unlike "Snowtown", "Killer Joe" is a pretty straightforward piece of fiction based on a stage play of the same name. It's still about murder, a very charismatic and undoubtedly psychotic killer, and has another bad ending so it makes the perfect double feature for anyone who wants to be left hanging twice in a row.

All staginess aside, William Friedkin really knows his stuff with these white trash dramas. I enjoyed "Bug" (2006) although I know most horror fans didn't, and so I'm obviously the right kind of audience for this. "Killer Joe" had twice the budget of "Bug" yet still feels like a low-budget but classy production in the same vein. Not to be too much of a fanboy here, but William Friedkin, as a director, certainly knows how to bring out the best of the entire cast.

Matthew McConaughey, channelling Paul Newman, gives the best performance of his entire career as the titular "Killer Joe" Cooper. He's definitely come a long way since "Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation" (1994) although I did think he was pretty good in "Reign of Fire" (2002). What can I say? I like dragons and Christian Bale too.

I'm not going to name everyone, but for a movie where every character is intentionally horrible in their own way, Emile Hirsch from "The Darkest Hour" (2011) is surprisingly sympathetic, and Gina Gershon, give or take a Kentucky Fried Chicken drumstick, is still as hot as when she was in "Bound" (1996).

Basically, the story is all about hiring a hitman to do away with Emile Hirsch's character's mother for financial gain. There's an insurance policy which will give everyone a nice little payout, settle some gambling debts, and, obviously, it becomes the source of even more trouble as the plot progresses.

While there isn't much gore, there's certainly some quite bloody and violent moments which are very well done. I could almost feel the final one with a can of pumpkin pie filling, but I'll say no more than that.

"Killer Joe" is definitely a black comedy with offbeat acting, some absolutely bizarre scenes, and, in a similar way to "Snowtown", a lot of extremely awkward dialogue which wouldn't be out of place in either film. Juno Temple plays Dottie Smith in such an autistic manner that she could almost be the sister of Lucas Pittaway.

The ending is rather abrupt, but you have to blame the writer for that rather than William Friedkin. On the plus side, you can make up your own mind about how things would play out which I know some people like to do.

Not to spoil it for you, but I think that one more gunshot during the fade-to-black before the final credits would have worked well. That would still leave things open to interpretation, but I don't make films, I just watch them. Less is more, as they say, even though I prefer it when a movie has a more substantial conclusion.

So that's my first "Murder Monday" over. Let me know if you like the new format or if I should go back to the old way of doing things with individual reviews.

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