Explore the cold and comical sides of vengeance through the works of legendary directors David Cronenberg and William Friedkin, streaming now at SBS On Demand.
Joseph Pallas

12 Oct 2021 - 9:18 AM  UPDATED 18 Oct 2021 - 1:51 PM

Revenge is a simple thing in cinema; someone, typically the villain, does something they shouldn’t, and by the time the credits roll they’ve been forced to swallow their just desserts, typically by the hero. What happens, though, when the characters can’t be neatly categorised as heroes and villains? What happens when everyone is a villain in their own way? Such is the case in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars and William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, two films that explore what happens when two very different groups of people have their bad behaviour catch up with them to gruesome, gory and strangely gratifying results.

Maps to the Stars

David Cronenberg sets the story in the star-studded Hollywood Hills where reality is a malleable image and hedonism is a poorly kept but well litigated secret. Into this sparkling den of depravity comes Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), an affected twenty-something with a veiled past who scores a job as personal assistant to ageing actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore). Agatha and Havana both live in the shadow of a distant parental figure that they desperately attempt to emulate in an effort to form a connection. This often causes others serious discomfort and even harm, yet there’s a deep psychological yearning that underpins both characters which Cronenberg uses to tease redemption for both of them and keep the audience intimately invested in their respective journeys.

It helps that for the most part the people that get caught up in, or that they intentionally involve in, their plans are just as sick and twisted as they are, if not more so. The most prominent examples of this lie in Evan Bird’s Benjie and John Cusack’s Stafford, the former a deranged child star who’s destructive egotistical callousness is inflamed by his violent hallucinations and the latter a stony sociopath who has no conceptions outside furthering his and his son’s career, in that order. Careerism is a theme that Cronenberg consistently uses as an openly professed source of the characters’ degeneration, but he’s clear to underlay that with the notion that, even by the most generous of appraisals, their rotten personalities are what drive them to self-destruction.

Moore’s performance is amazingly strong in this regard and the screamingly genuine and fleeting moments of self-doubt that she injects into Havana give her slow downfall a hint of sadness that mingles with the sick satisfaction of it. Cronenberg interestingly works against this in his technical approach, maintaining a distance between the characters and the audience through the spacious framing and stolid pacing of the film that forces the audience to view their actions and their personalities from a detached perspective that in a way dehumanises them, only to then suddenly humanise them when their emotions boil over. It’s here that they get what they deserve, in the heat of passions that they otherwise lie to themselves to stay removed from; it’s precisely those passions and dreams of mighty hereditary destinies that end up crushing them all in turn.

Killer Joe

William Friedkin tells an inverse tale of the working poor of Texas, selling their souls for some quick cash and what happens when their debt comes due. There is no glamour or gaudiness in Killer Joe; the characters are unmasked, defined by their naked ambitions and twisted moralities. There is no calm detachment, and Friedkin imbibes freely of the sadistic genre thrills and dark humour brought on by the premise. There is no doubt about the guilt of those involved in the murderous insurance scam that lies at the centre of the plot, and the only point of contention is how culpable and conscious of their actions each player in the game is. All this creates a miring and macabre atmosphere that drags the audience into the decrepit corners and crevices of desperation. That desperation is what damns – and to a degree also initially justifies – the paths the characters choose to take.

Chris (Emile Hirsch) convinces his father to go along with a plot to kill his estranged mother Sharla (Gina Gershon) after he uncovers a hefty life insurance policy that specifies affected daughter Dottie (Juno Temple) as the sole payee. Enter, Matthew McConaughey as Detective Joe Cooper, a cop better known as Killer Joe, who moonlights as an assassin and in this capacity becomes involved in Chris’ plan. Attempted matricide might end up being one of the lesser of Chris’ sins when Joe takes a liking to Dottie and the psychosexual tensions between the three are brought to a head. Friedkin and writer Tracy Letts do their utmost to make every character despicable in their own special way, with only Dottie being spared in serving as the final moral arbiter, and the last ten minutes of the film are a bloody and brutal outburst of the characters’ vengeance upon each other and themselves.

Lacking an empathetic protagonist of any sort, along with the comically excessive and often confronting sexual content and violence, may make the film rough going for some, but it’s a discomfort that’s full of schadenfreude and sly humour that leaves the film gutturally satisfying. Nowhere is this more present than in the performances, with Gershon and Hirsch being particularly impressive in presenting strong faces that affectingly crumble under the slightest questioning. The real standout though is McConaughey, who plays Joe with a southern gothic grimness and ever so light swagger that strikes a similar tone to his acclaimed role in True Detective only without the underlying moral rigidity. McConaughey is magnetic for every second that he’s on screen and he’s instrumental in delivering the twisted and deceptive justice that the film thrives off until its very last frame.

Watch ‘Maps to the Stars’

Canada, 2014
David Cronenberg
Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams


Watch ‘Killer Joe’

USA, 2011
Crime Drama/Thriller
Language: English
Director: William Friedkin
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church


Follow the author @JPallasWriter

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