Thursday, September 5, 2013

Film Pairings — Gambling As A Means To A Bad End, Or Not

When I propose these double features, I’m not necessarily recommending them — at least not for every one. I mention this now because I have vey mixed feelings about both Killer Joe and Rounders. Both have fine casts; reason enough to see them, perhaps. The directors are experienced, and the story premises are promising.

However, Killer Joe, with its perfect noir plot, is nonetheless filled with gratuitous violence and prolonged humiliation. I felt this way before I read about director William Friedkin’s battle to keep it from getting the dreaded NC17 rating.  He lost that battle and a similar one in the U.K.  In the end, Friedkin did not make the cuts that would have made the film an “R’ and more profitable in general release.  Good for him.  But while I wholeheartedly support the director’s refusal to give in to censorship, I found myself censoring it on my own by fast-forwarding through scenes when the camera lingered far too long on scenes of little more than torture. Without spoiling the artful twists in plot, here’s the story: A sleazy, mentally disturbed Houston cop, Matthew McConaughey, is hired to kill a woman by the woman’s son, daughter and ex-husband. The son, Emile Hirsch, has a crushing gambling debt and is mere days from extinction.  He has exhausted all alternatives, except the one that brings Joe into their dysfunctional family.  With a common purpose — killing mom — gives family members reason to unite.  Juno Temple, Gina Gershon and Thomas Hayden Church, who brings depth to the depthless, make the characters and story all too real.

John Malkovich and Matt Damon
If Killer Joe suffers from some horribly misplaced exuberance, Rounders may be flawed by too much restraint.  John Dahl, director of one of my favorite, darkly comedic films — The Last Seduction — focuses on a promising young gambler played by Matt Damon in Rounders.  The problem for our protagonist in this film, like Killer Joe, is that when you gamble, sometimes you lose and sometimes you lose to the wrong people.  We spend most of the film as bystanders to poker games as Damon tries to climb out of deep debt the way he got into it — by gambling some more. Even for a poor poker player like me, this was more interesting than I would have imagined.  Each game brings with it its own drama.  However the central drama is the choice Damon’s character must make.  Should he, a smart law student, go straight or, as the devil on his shoulder, Edward Norton, counsels, “go pro” in the exciting world of high-stakes poker.  I stayed with the film for its promise.  Here was John Turturro, John Malkovich and Martin Landau. With all these great characters and the danger hovering over Damon’s genuinely decent character, what great surprise, what profound irony are we going to experience?  I have no idea.  He makes a choice.  If that’s it, it’s not enough.

This is definitely a beer night — the cheaper the better.

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