During an early conversation scene in Killer Joe, there is a clear eyeline mismatch in a shot/reaction shot, a choice I took to be artistic until I realized that it never happened again during the film and that it served no motivated purpose during its single appearance. This kind of aesthetic shagginess is arguably suited to a story that hovers around crooked trailer park denizens in Texas cooking up a murder scheme for insurance money; but for a film that seems to want to insist on the flavor of its location (the backwaters of Dallas), no sense of place or milieu is ever really developed. The film’s political allegory is either incoherent or painfully obvious - I can't decide which - and, in any event, it is at least five years out of date. And while Matthew McConaughey’s desire to distance himself from Zellwegerian romantic comedies is commendable, I want to gently suggest that performing an orgasm with a fried chicken leg inserted into the mouth of one of your co-stars while keeping your pants on is perhaps going too far in the other direction. Killer Joe is a strange, discordant footnote in the actor's recent, and otherwise mostly entertaining, career re-direction.
The Proposition is about the procedures of emasculated civilization attempting to claim frontiers previously governed by the mysterious laws of hyper-masculine violence. And this is what makes John Hillcoat interesting as a director; most filmmakers intrigued by masculinity push it to the forefront, as if mere bloodshed is an insight into the gruff male’s condition. Hillcoat, by contrast, keeps violent maleness brooding in the shadows, emerging into light only in quick, startling, blood-curdling flashes that are over as soon as they begin: a shovel over the head, a knife across the throat. Lawless is, setting aside, about pretty much the same thing as The Proposition, the earlier film’s themes distilled into a simpler scenario and more economical scenes. Now civilization comes in the form of a flamboyant Chicago fed played by Guy Pearce, and the mysterious, brooding hyper-masculinity is embodied by Southern-fried bootlegging brothers Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke. Shia LaBeouf, playing the youngest moonshining brother, is caught in the middle, lacking both Hardy’s brooding physicality and Clarke’s traumatic Great War experience. LaBeouf tries his hand at outwitting Pearce and wooing a local church girl, two incommensurable tasks that give the movie fleeting tension; his scenes with Mia Wasikowska are the best in the film and give it a momentum it sometimes lacks. Nick Cave’s script develops a perspective for its violence about halfway through, when an intriguing ellipsis and, later, a possibly unreliable voice-over suggest that all of this brooding alpha-male posturing is little more than American mythology without content.
Gary Oldman’s presence falls somewhere between a cameo and a rumor. He disappears after about an hour. I do not have the space or time to adequately transcribe the glow of Jessica Chastain’s gestures, so I will settle for an appreciative inventory of the objects in Lawless that come alive only after she touches them: several cigarettes, a misplaced hat, a potato peeler, a coffee pot, a bed railing, a shawl, Tom Hardy.
Deacon Zee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd). The generational gap between the two of them is evident from the beginning: Flik frames the world through his iPad 2, documenting the world around him through visual means, while the preacher insists on the Word, using his sermons as a means to draw young Flik into the religious fold. The preacher’s work makes for an entertaining spectacle, but Flik is the real story, and his sweet friendship with a teenager named Chazz (Toni Lysaith) provides Red Hook with most if its grace notes.
Lee is interested in exploring the contours of this community circa 2011, and it clearly is in tatters: where Do the Right Thing saw divisions in a community through race, in this semi-sequel the divisions are primarily economic, intra-communal, and religious. A strange and unexpected plot development, about 90 minutes through, reveals that these communal seams might have their origins in deep-seeded psychological traumas. However, this narrative turn never quite settles into the larger narrative context surrounding it, and Lee’s performers, who are mostly non-professionals, are not quite able to convey the gravity of the situation.