A while back I watched three films starring Matthew McConaughey, and last Thursday night I watched another one.
Fenton Meiks (McConaughey) informs FBI agent Doyle that his brother Adam is the God’s Hand killer, and that both he and Adam were brainwashed by their father (Bill Paxton, who also directed the film) into believing that they were acting out the will of God, killing the people named as demons on a list given to them by an angel. And from that point on the story stretches back into the past via flashbacks and forward into the future, with Doyle investigating Fenton’s claims. We bear witness to a horrific childhood, with two young boys/men subjected to the iron will of a father who is a religious fanatic with a murderous agenda, and see the way in which parental love is twisted into a terrible shape, with the sons slowly growing into the image of their father. And we also see the way in which Doyle has been tricked, with various revelations that call into question the validity of all we have viewed and the sanity of the protagonists. It is a powerful film, one that asks questions about the nature of faith and what we should be required to do in its name, with superb performances from all the leads and some mind bending plot twists. And at the end of it all we really don’t have any answers, with an element of ambiguity that gives the viewer leave to choose between madness and religious truth, or perhaps plump for some fusion of the two, with terrible things done in the service of a good cause. With the father and two sons killing demons, I can’t help but wonder if this film was in some way a forerunner of TV series Supernatural. Regardless, it is more original and compelling; a serious work that shows what horror is capable of at its best.
This is based on a novel by bestselling author Clive Cussler (I’ve only read one book by him, and absolutely detested it). McConaughey plays National Underwater and Marine Agency operative Dirk Pitt who, while in Africa, saves the life of Eva Rojas (played by Penelope Cruz), a doctor for the WHO investigating a disease that is spreading across Mali. He then sets off into the African heartland aboard a luxury yacht belonging to an admiral friend in search of the wreck of a Confederate ironclad that ended up on the river bank a hundred or so years back. Eva and companion go along for the ride, in search of the source of the contamination that they believe is causing the disease. Naturally big business supported by a corrupt warlord is the root problem, and naturally Dirk takes care of it all while never losing the smile from his face. I suspect this was intended to be the start of a franchise to rival James Bond, but in the event it never rose above the level of hokum. The plot is overly contrived, with the ironclad and the way in which it is used never quite ringing true. The good guys and gals are all beautiful, photogenic people, who never look true in the hardass roles they play, while the bad guys never rise above the level of comic cutouts. Strip it all back, and what we have here is some pretty scenery, periods of quiet between overlong pyrotechnic displays, risible characterisation and plotting, plus McConaughey and Cruz looking “hot” in various impractical outfits (I may be overstating things here). With thirteen times the budget of Frailty it still managed to fail badly at the box office. Watch once and then destroy.
Fool’s Gold (2008)
Probably the weakest of these films, though it still had a bigger box office return than Sahara, it stars McConaughey as Ben “Finn” Finnegan an adventurer looking for the wreck of a Spanish treasure galleon and the booty it contains. Because of his obsession, wife Tess (Kate Hudson) has divorced him, but Finn now needs to get her onboard with his plans so that her millionaire, yacht owning employer will help them out with the use of his vessel. Naturally the couple fall in love all over again during the course of the search, after the requisite cursing each other out and swearing they’ll never have anything to do with each other again. And naturally there are various bad guys also searching for the treasure to inject a little excitement into the plot and provide the two leads with scenes in which they can discover their true feelings by saving each other’s lives. Again, it’s a film that looks photogenic, with stunning scenery, a beautiful cast that have, thanks to the Caribbean setting, an inexhaustible pretext for the women to get into their bikinis. And, beyond the looks, there really isn’t anything much to it. McConaughey’s Finn is meant to be a charming rogue, but I found him childish and irritating, tedium on steroids, and I couldn’t believe that Tess would put up with such an ass regardless of how good their sex life is (the excuse given). It’s a film that doesn’t really seem to know what it wants to be – the comedy always seems half-hearted in execution, while the action scenes just don’t cut it – and the end result is very much a poor man’s version of Romancing the Stone without the charismatic and credible leads. Hudson’s performance as feisty Tess is the best thing about it, but even that is undercut by her ongoing attraction to Finn, which makes us lose respect for her. It’s certainly easy on the eye, but almost entirely negligible otherwise.
Killer Joe (2011)
Drug dealer Chris owes money to the wrong people. His solution is to employ corrupt police detective Joe Cooper who moonlights as a contract killer to murder his mother and collect on the insurance policy. He also enlists in the plot his father Ansel, Ansel’s new wife Sharla, and sister Dottie (well, mother Adele really isn’t all that well liked, in case you hadn’t guessed). The sticking point is that Killer Joe wants paying upfront and they don’t have the money; Joe does however take a fancy to Dottie and is prepared to take her as a retainer, which leads to other complications. And with another plot simmering away in the background it’s only a matter of time before all sorts of shit hits the fan. This is a nice, twisty little thriller, one that stretches credibility a tad (all those people happy for Adele to get bumped off), but not past breaking point. I also take issue with the timescale, with events seeming to unfold in an unconscionably fast manner. All that’s only quibbling though. What makes it special is the beautiful composition of each scene shot through the eyes of director William Friedkin and the quality of the performances from an all-star cast. Emile Hirsch is perfectly cast as Chris, the desperation he feels showing in every look and the way in which he holds his body, while simmering away underneath all that is an attraction to sister Dottie that he presents as a desire to protect her innocence. Gina Gershon sizzles as bargain basement femme fatale Sharla, while Thomas Haden Church is completely believable as father Ansel, going through the film in a state akin to shell shock as each new revelation about his dysfunctional family is dragged into the light, a man betrayed and let down by everyone he once loved. And then there is Juno Temple as Dottie, somebody who seems disconnected from all that is going on around her, with a childish simplicity to her that borders on holy innocent. At first reticent, she is attracted to Joe’s strong, silent type, only to then be repelled when he erupts into violence. Finally, the film belongs to McConaughey as the eponymous Killer Joe, dominating every scene in which he appears, ostensibly calm, cool, and collected, but with an awareness for the viewer that violence is always close to the surface with this man, ready to erupt at the slightest provocation. Provocation is what he gets, with some gut churning scenes subsequently as he brutalises and humiliates those who oppose him. And I loved the open ending. It’s not for the faint hearted, but I would rate this Friedkin’s best film since The Exorcist, though to be honest I don’t think I’ve seen many of those films. Naturally it bombed at the box office, though the critics loved it. And, with this and Frailty as benchmarks, I think McConaughey is better when cast in dark, challenging roles, rather than as the goofy romantic hero come textbook good guy.
So anyone else want to give an opinion as to their favourite MM film?