Toronto International Film Festival 2011: Killer Joe, The Descendants, Alps
Sometimes in the delirium of sleepless festival days, a shotgun blast of genre filmmaking is just what you need—which may be part of why I had so much fun at William Friedkin's movie version of Killer Joe, a slick and satisfyingly amoral adaptation of Tracy Letts's play.
The basic material is familiar, but Letts's noir scenario goes to extremes: A Texan alpha-twerp (Emile Hirsch) and his father (Thomas Haden Church) plot to kill Mom for the insurance money, hiring Matthew McConaughey's smooth-talking hit man to do the deed. He requires the Hirsch character's younger sister (a scene-stealing, Texas-accented Juno Temple) as collateral—and rather than recoil in horror, these two say sure, why not. Adding young love, a cascading set of double-crosses and a truly disgusting use of poultry to its tragic stew, Killer Joe plays like a first-rate exploitation film. It's also less stagebound than the previous Letts-Friedkin collaboration, Bug. Letts actually makes the point that it was difficult confining this story to a single set in the first place.
With its toxic view of family, Killer Joe serves as the flip side of one of the better-loved films in the festival, Alexander Payne's The Descendants. This is probably Payne's best movie since Election, although it continues the slide into mawkishness that began with About Schmidt. Still, this time the setup seems at least partially grounded: George Clooney stars as a Hawaiian lawyer confronting a family tragedy; the film charts the shifting mix of grief, anger and gallows humor that results as he and his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) say farewell to their mother, comatose after a boating accident and leaving behind more than a small mess.
The biggest letdown so far has been Alps, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos's follow-up to his Oscar-nominated Dogtooth (2009). Stylistically, the movie is a similar sort of deadpan comedy, but its premise doesn't make much sense either metaphorically or psychologically. Purists may want to duck out here, since Alps is intended to be seen with as little foreknowledge as possible, but it's not as if there's much to spoil. Suffice it to say "Alps" is the code name of a group of people who offer their services posing as the recently deceased. By having an immediate replacement for a loved one, their theory goes, they'll ease the loss's pain.
As good as Dogtooth was, it required a fair suspension of disbelief: It was always tough to buy that the film's dictatorial father would be able to shield his children from outside influence for so long. Alps, on the other hand, doesn't even make baseline sense. Wouldn't having a fake replacement daughter—someone who'd repeatedly have to be coached on behavior and mannerisms—only exacerbate a parent's grief over her death? Discussing plausibility is always a losing battle in a context like this one, but Alps is the kind of movie that magnifies the flaws of a previous work.
Fun, right? Tune in tomorrow for my thoughts on a death-row double feature: Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss and (if I get in) Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Paradise Lost 3.