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Tim Grierson on the Devilishly Dark Thriller “Killer Joe”

Killer Joe

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We’re all suckers for redemption stories. When celebrities have a fall from grace, part of us wants to see them pick themselves up, apologize for their indiscretions, and emerge a wiser, smarter, better person. Likewise, plenty of fiction revolves around characters who start off as bad people but eventually see the error of their ways. (“A Christmas Carol” wouldn’t be an enduring holiday classic if Scrooge ended up as rotten as he started out.) But sometimes, fiction offers us people who don’t want redemption — they’re quite content being miserable wretches. Their lives may not be inspirational, but they can be lowdown dirty fun.

“Killer Joe,” which opens on Friday, is filled with such horrible characters. The movie is a giddy rush of bad behavior that allows us to live vicariously through these horrible human beings. You wouldn’t want to be these people, and you definitely wouldn’t endorse anything they do. But for a couple hours, it’s a pleasure to be in their nasty company.

The movie is based on the play of the same name by Tracy Letts, who won a Pulitzer for another work, “August: Osage County.” “Killer Joe” is set on the outskirts of Dallas where apparently only the thoughtless, the classless, and the desperate reside. We meet Chris (Emile Hirsch), a directionless young man who needs money quickly to pay off debts to some violent underworld figures. But he has a plan: His mother, whom he despises, has a sizable life insurance policy that will go to his underage sister Dottie (Juno Temple) in the case of her death. So he teams up with his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), who’s now married to trailer-trash Sharla (Gina Gershon), to hire a disreputable cop named Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to kill the mother.

If that setup sounds reminiscent of a Quentin Tarantino film — not to mention a dozen heist-gone-wrong pictures — you’re in the right ballpark for where “Killer Joe” goes. But the film, directed by William Friedkin, is less about its twists than it is about reveling in the remorselessness of its characters. And revel it does: The film is rated NC-17 for its violence and sexual content, and there’s a dark, kinky edge to the proceedings almost from the beginning. Perhaps even more shocking, though, is how funny “Killer Joe” is. Friedkin and his great cast have conspired to create a world in which we chuckle at the characters’ wickedness while being hypnotized and horrified by their more demented behavior. If I’m being intentionally vague, it’s because the shocks in “Killer Joe” are best experienced without any advanced knowledge, but know that while this movie can be viciously depraved, the amoral activities you’ll witness spring rather frighteningly organically from the characters. Although “Killer Joe” can be a touch jokey from time to time, on the whole it’s a perversely intoxicating character-driven thriller in which the threat of something horrible happening forever lingers in the air.

Because the film’s tone is such a tricky one, the performances are crucial to maintaining the spell. Happily, none of the actors puts a foot wrong. This isn’t always easy when you’re playing people who are, for the most part, stupid — it can be difficult not to make them come across as unrealistic or caricatures. But the cast of “Killer Joe” gives their characters a weird kind of integrity — they may be despicable fools, but they’re very clear about who they are. You’ll end up laughing at these people a lot, but you also never feel like you can completely trust them, which gives the movie a worrisome edginess that makes it hard to ever fully relax during “Killer Joe.”

The film’s livewire nastiness is embodied by Joe Cooper, brilliantly played by McConaughey. I’ve mentioned before what a roll the actor has been on lately, and his performance in “Killer Joe” is particularly striking for what risks it takes. Long known as the star of disposable romantic comedies, McConaughey has tried to change his image with strong turns in “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Magic Mike,” but neither of those roles required the bravery that Joe Cooper does. When we first meet Joe, he immediately establishes himself as the smartest, most cold-blooded individual in the room. But as “Killer Joe” rolls along, his sinister agenda starts to assert itself, particularly when he eyes young, alluring little Dottie. It’s not unusual for a likeable star to take on a despicable character, but Joe is a particularly sick monster — if McConaughey’s performance hadn’t worked, it could have been an embarrassment for him and a disaster for the film. But McConaughey is disturbingly confident as this psychopath, maybe in part because Joe doesn’t see himself that way — like everybody in “Killer Joe,” he just does what he does. These people don’t believe in redemption — they don’t believe in much of anything. This movie may offend you, but it also may leave you feeling grateful. We all have our darker sides, but none of us are as bad as these inglorious bastards.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.