Two Films Shoot Past Realism To Weirder Territory

Calvin (Paul Dano) with the woman he manifested from his typewriter, Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). Kazan also wrote the film Ruby Sparks, which is directed by the team behind Little Miss Sunshine. i i

hide captionCalvin (Paul Dano) with the woman he manifested from his typewriter, Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). Kazan also wrote the film Ruby Sparks, which is directed by the team behind Little Miss Sunshine.

Merrick Morton/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Calvin (Paul Dano) with the woman he manifested from his typewriter, Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). Kazan also wrote the film Ruby Sparks, which is directed by the team behind Little Miss Sunshine.

Calvin (Paul Dano) with the woman he manifested from his typewriter, Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). Kazan also wrote the film Ruby Sparks, which is directed by the team behind Little Miss Sunshine.

Merrick Morton/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Ruby Sparks

  • Directors: Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton
  • Genre: Comedy, Drama
  • Running Time: 104 minutes

Rated R for language including some sexual references, and for some drug use

With: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Elliott Gould, Chris Messina, Annette Bening

Amid the slapstick comedies, sequels and superhero movies that have come to define summer moviegoing, two films opening today center on disturbed and disturbing romantic ties. Ruby Sparks and Killer Joe aren't fantasy or horror pictures, but they're within screaming distance — close enough to remind you how much deeper artists go when they barrel past realism into weirder areas of the psyche.

Ruby Sparks is a parable about men and what they project on women. It's written by actress Zoe Kazan, and stars her and her boyfriend, Paul Dano. He plays Calvin, a novelist who had a generation-defining, Catcher in the Rye-type hit at 19 and has barely produced anything in the decade since. Despite his fame, he's unable to meet that special girl.

He dreams of her, though. She comes out of the sunlight in a short, swishy dress — and when he types his dream on his old typewriter, something strange happens. His dog shows up carrying a woman's shoe. Toiletries appear in his bathroom. Finally comes the woman, whom he names Ruby Sparks.

Kazan's Ruby is lithe and baby-faced, with round, adoring blue eyes. She is, to use an adjective applied to that other Zooey (Deschanel), adorkable. She's what Cal wants, to a fault.

But when she begins to want something — her own life and friends and career — and he thinks she's going to leave him, he types, "Ruby is miserable without Cal," and lo, she's back.

A Dallas hard-luck case  (Emile Hirsch, left) hires a corrupt cop (Matthew McConaughey) to kill his estranged mother when he hears about her rich insurance policy. Needless to say, the plot of Killer Joe doesn't quite work out as planned.

hide captionA Dallas hard-luck case (Emile Hirsch, left) hires a corrupt cop (Matthew McConaughey) to kill his estranged mother when he hears about her rich insurance policy. Needless to say, the plot of Killer Joe doesn't quite work out as planned.

Skip Bolen/LD Entertainment

Ruby Sparks builds to become a tour-de-force psychodrama worthy of The Bride of Frankenstein, which I won't spoil. But I will say that Cal is decent enough to be ashamed of his godlike control over Ruby; the problem is he can't let go — can't control the monster in himself — while Ruby conveys the escalating horror of a woman who, in realistic movies, might say, "I don't know who I am, only what you want me to be."

Killer Joe

  • Director: William Friedkin
  • Genre: Thriller, Comedy
  • Running Time: 103 minutes

Rated NC-17 for graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality

With: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon

It's a great metaphor — so strong that the movie comes close to being too tidy, not as full and overflowing as the best fantasies. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' direction is a shade naturalistic, although Annette Bening does perk things up as Cal's mom, who lives in a richly rustic house in Big Sur, having altered her personality to reflect her new mate, played hilariously by Antonio Banderas.

The film might have been more fun if Cal were expansive instead of a worrywart in the Matthew Broderick mode. Good as Dano is, he never seems like a guy who could write his generation's Catcher in the Rye: He's tentative, bloodless.

That's not a charge you could level at anyone in Killer Joe, adapted from an early play by Tracey Letts, who wrote Bug and August: Osage County. Killer Joe is grandly gory; Letts works in the Steppenwolf Theatre tradition of characters who get in one another's faces from the get-go and then get more invasive.

It's a family drama.

Emile Hirsch plays Chris, a high-strung young man in debt to gangsters, who hears that his estranged mom, by all accounts a hateful woman, has a fat insurance policy naming his childlike 20-year-old sister Dottie the sole beneficiary. He and his groggy-loser dad (Thomas Haden Church) decide to hire themselves a killer — a corrupt Dallas police detective, played by Matthew McConaughey in a black cowboy hat. Joe shows up at their house — one step up from a trailer — but finds only Dottie, played by Juno Temple.

The movie features some savory dialogue, every line quivering suggestively — and have you noticed how bizarre McConaughey's features are, with his long nose and that face that's all flat planes?

Joe's deliberateness is barely a cover for how crazy he is. When Chris can't come up with cash for the killing, Joe takes the virgin Dottie as his "retainer" and effectively moves in — a son-in-law who becomes a brutal dictator.

William Friedkin, who made the film version of Bug, is a sensational director of filmed plays: The movie gets opened up with no loss of theatrical intensity, and the cast — which includes Gina Gershon as a taunting slattern — is in clover. Slimy, rotting clover.

Beware: The climax of Killer Joe is hideously violent. But I wouldn't want these people to be any less monstrous. This isn't realism. It's grand opera, Grand Guignol opera.

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