(On TV, July 2018) Mood counts for more than I care to admit in watching movies, and so it is that after a lengthy run of older black-and-white classic movies, I was hungering for something like the 1980s crime thriller antics of To Live and Die in L.A. despite significant reservations about much of the film’s execution. Delving in the nitty-gritty of money counterfeiting, this William Friedkin movie goes to Los Angeles for a sordid tale of crooked cops, unabashed villains, not-so-victimized girlfriends and hazy sunlight. William Petersen turns in a career-best performance as an adrenaline-addicted cop who throws away morality and decency in a quest to take down his partner’s killer. That killer turns out to be played by William Defoe, in an early, perhaps less intense performance but one that shows how handsomely the actor has aged since then. Other surprising names pop up here and there, from John Turturro, Robert Downey (Senior) and a short-but-striking appearance by Jane Leeves. The influence of the mid-eighties couldn’t be more obvious with its garish credit sequence and Wang Chung-scored synth soundtrack—it’s one of the film’s more dated features, and it’s about as annoying as the gratuitous gory violence that mars a film that’s far too exploitative to deserve its gore. The story is a game played with clichés—the three-days-to-retirement veteran, the out-of-control hero, the hidden informants, the sunny California haze … it feels like both a spiritual cousin to Miami Vice and a prototype for Heat — even the much-lauded counter-flow car chase feels less impressive now that it has been copied so often. Still, for all of its grim narrative (in which a rogue cop causes an endless parade of trouble and death for everyone), To Live and Die in L.A. is surprisingly entertaining, and even the over-the-top eighties aesthetics eventually work in the film’s favour. There’s even a substantial thematic depth in the way the protagonist is revealed to be a revolting anti-hero—so much so that his unsentimentally portrayed fate is a mere stepping stone to even greater character corruption. In doing so, To Live and Die in L.A. becomes something more than a mere rearrangement of genre elements, but a reassessment of our toxic relationship with them. That’s quite a bit more than I expected in tackling the film, predisposed mood eventually giving way to honest interest in what the film was attempting.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) Matthew McConaughey’s recent career renewal has been a beautiful thing to watch ever since The Lincoln Lawyer and it reaches an apogee of sorts here within this pitch-black Texan crime thriller. Though sometimes billed as a comedy, Killer Joe is more lurid than funny, as it features a deeply dysfunctional family plotting to kill for purely monetary gains. Complications more than ensue when an implacable hit-man (McConaughey, deliciously evil) is brought in to execute the plan, and when the money goes missing. Twisted, sordid, at times asphyxiating, Killer Joe is not pure entertainment as much as it’s watching a train-wreck in motion. Sometimes in very slow motion, as the theatrical roots of Tracy Letts’ script show up most visibly in a series of lengthy dialogue-heavy scenes. (You may hear about the fried-chicken scene and you may think you’re ready to see it as just one more thing in your jaded filmgoer’s experience, but you’re not.) While Killer Joe ends a bit too early to earn a satisfying pay-off, there’s no denying the skill with which veteran director William Friedkin puts together the film, or the talent of the actors having fun with their slummy characters. Emile Hirsch is particularly credible as a dim-witted wannabe hustler who gets outplayed by everyone, while Gina Gershon gets the least-glamorous role as the fried-chicken-gobbler. (And now I feel dirty for having written this, and I haven’t even mentioned the twisted sex-slavery plot device.) Unpleasant yet fascinating, crafty and exploitative at once, Killer Joe may best be considered as showing how far McConaughey has gone from his beach-bum rom-com persona… and how good he is at playing dark.