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The bad families of Killer Joe and The Queen of Versailles

Families come apart in Killer Joe and The Queen of Versailles.



A neglected son asks his father for money. Hears: Son, I don't have it.

When paternal help isn't forthcoming in The Queen of Versailles, it's because Dad is David Siegel, the embattled Westgate Resorts founder whose poor decisions drive Lauren Greenfield's judgment-inducing documentary. By the time that offspring, middle-aged middle executive Richard Siegel, goes to his pops for a handout, he's at the back of the broke-ass-broke line, behind his stepmother and various of her domestics and friends, and laid-off Westgate employees. Tough titty, kid. Like, really tough. The proudly flaunted, Florida-grown sci-fi bosom of that stepmother, Versailles' eponymous matriarch, Jackie Siegel — former model and pageant winner and mother of seven additional biological Siegels — is never far from Greenfield's lens. But we'll come back to that.

When the family cookie jar is empty in William Friedkin's latest movie, Killer Joe, aid arrives in the form of another title character, a homicidal rogue cop.

The last time Matthew McConaughey played a Texas lawman, he was the white hat in John Sayles' supremely effective 1996 border drama, Lone Star. Times change. The actor's unfamiliar handsomeness and earnest calm in that film are long gone, spent on mediocre dramas and then overdrawn to make lazy romantic comedies the past decade. As Dallas police detective Joe Cooper, McConaughey uses the familiarity of his multiplex-ready physical symmetry, and a rather less earnest calm, to goad and lull, as he did in Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike earlier this summer. And here again, he's not just capable but seductive when called on to be oily, onanistic and amoral.

But in Soderbergh's ass-o-rama, the pleasure of McConaughey's turn was in seeing him choose oil, onanism and amorality. Tracy Letts' Killer Joe screenplay, based on his 1991 play (the eventual Pulitzer Prize winner's first), gives no quarter to any of its actors, no room for subtle gradations or much choice at all. Hired-gun Joe is a 2-D satanic figure, meant to drive the story's gothic shocks while reacting to the ugliness that summoned him to the fun house. McConaughey's obvious good time — the sole reason to risk personal debasement by sitting through Friedkin's Southern-fried mess — threatens to become contagious once or twice. But the layered, grinning menace he brought to Magic Mike dissolves here into simple actorly relish.

Killer Joe, though, is the sort of project — loud, pushy, baroque in its degradations — designed to lure comeback-hungry or redefinition-ready actors to the relish tray. So Gina Gershon attracts magazine mini-profiles by appearing in her first scene naked from the waist down. Discreetly unmentioned in various "Hey, we remember Gina" pieces is that she's stuck (not for the first time) in a from-the-waste-up movie, one in which her character must felate a KFC leg after having her nose broken.

More naked more often is Juno Temple, miscast and then molested by Friedkin as she squirms through her baby-doll role. Also miscast: Emile Hirsch, as the loser son and brother who hatches the story's contract-killer insurance scheme. Never miscast: Thomas Haden Church as the film's low-life paterfamilias.

So, right, back to paters.

As The Queen of Versailles opens, director Greenfield asks time-share magnate David Siegel why he's building a 90,000-square-foot house. "Because I can," he says, in that ask-a-stupid-question tone only the male voice ever properly achieves. At that moment, on camera, he is enthroned — as in sitting on a big, gilded chair made to look like a throne. Also as in imperturbably and unimaginably and unthinkingly wealthy. (The Siegels' fixation on France's Versailles makes you long for The Dark Knight Rises' French Revolution-loving Bane to drop by. Viva la Christopher Nolan's disjointed politics after all.)

For the rest of Queen's alternately amusing and offensive 100 minutes, Siegel undergoes considerable perturbance and must imagine a less wealthy life. What he never quite does, though — even after the lights go off in the megalithic Las Vegas tower he has put up with his own money, even after his swollen family is forced to fly commercial ("Who's my driver?" Jackie asks a blank-faced Hertz attendant as she rents a car) — is stop behaving unthinkingly. He gives the appearance of deep rumination, stewing in a dim, banker-box-cluttered room in the 26,000-square-foot home he wanted to leave (a glossy, dog-shit-strewn, marbleized Costco of a place) and barking at his kids and his wife to turn off the lights. (Now he's barking at Greenfield, whose finished movie prompted him this past spring to sue her for defamation.) But his failure ever to consider a life of less spending (he admits, late in the movie, that he never saved any money for his kids to attend college) illustrates a particular cul-de-sac on the gold-paved road to 2008's financial meltdown.

As though, four years after Wall Street took a trillion-dollar dump on Main Street, further illustration was required. So Greenfield wisely clings to Jackie, who moves easily through a house where her face seems somehow to be pictured on every vertical surface — and whom you still believe when she says, at documentary's end, that she's not a stupid person. In a movie that doesn't quite transcend the feel of another the-rich-are-ha-ha-crazy reality series, compressed to an easy running time, she transcends her own tackiness. Almost.

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