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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.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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