Without knowing anything about the production of The Killing Jar, I can make the reasonably-educated guess that writer/director Mark Young (Tooth and Nail) understood that his limitations were likely to be budgetary. By confining his tense story to a single location ensured that he could concentrate his funds on hiring terrific actors to populate the story. Setting the movie in that classic noir “out of the way diner’, rather than, say, in the Taj Mahal, Young could afford solid performers and fan-favorites like Amber Benson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Drones), Harold Perrineau (Lost, Oz), Lew Temple (The Devil’s Rejects), the one and only Danny Trejo (Machete), Jake Busey and “Crazy Uncle Mr. Blonde” Michael Madsen. This cast also helped Young hedge other bets. If, at times, his script weren’t bullet-proof, water-tight or whatever other phrase you’d prefer, at least the cast would keep the story propelled forward.
Late one rainy night at the Copal Grill, two strangers arrive and throw the “nothing ever happens here” tedium out of whack. One moment, it’s just Deputy Lonnie (Temple) and trucker Hank (Kevin Gage) listening to waitress Noreen (Benson) fight with Jimmy the cook (Trejo) over the lack of air conditioning. He threatens to fire her; “Haven’t you fired me enough for one week?” she asks. One night like any other. Over the radio, the DJ announces the kick-off of the County Fair and then breaking news of the gruesome murder of a family in the next town over. The killer was seen driving away in a black pick-up truck. Enter two strangers: John Dixon (Perrineau) in his ill-fitting suit and sales convention name tag, and “Doe” (Madsen), a hulking, surly man in black leather jacket. Doe’s tense and unfriendly demeanor leads to an awkward confrontation—more a battle of machismo and control—with Deputy Lonnie. Doe storms out of the diner but returns moments later. Murdering two with an enormous shotgun, he corrals the others and holds them hostage, giving no indication of what he wants or what he’ll do next.
Soon, a third stranger arrives with a suitcase full of money, to pay the man who carried out the murder of the family mentioned on the radio. “Mr. Green” (Jake Busey(!) doesn’t know who he’s there to meet and Doe might not be the man he wants—but if not him, then who? Someone in the diner has a secret.
The Killing Jar should be required viewing for all indie filmmakers as a guide to overcoming limitations. Simple without becoming simplistic, Young makes good use of his space, the familiar story and allowing established actors to bring their own takes to archetypical characters. While the script offers few surprises, it’s never less anything than entertaining. It avoids the existential meandering of Headless Body in a Topless Bar as well as the tedious moralizing of Albino Alligator, and there’s none of the hipster pandering of the last two decades worth of straight-to-video Tarantino knock-offs—except for some repetitious back-and-forth dialogue, particularly in the third act, that does become momentarily grating. Young’s movie is precisely as advertised: a straightforward, neo-noir thriller, free of irony or tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that’s actually very refreshing.
Where The Killing Jar subverts expectations is in the performances. Since the characters are little more than utilitarian “types”, there is plenty of room for the actors to play and bring their own little quirks to the roles and thus avoiding stereotypes. Casting blonde, blue-eyed Benson as the small-town-girl-with-big-city-dreams waitress Noreen, the viewer has the instant recognition and understanding of the character’s job in the film, but the actress brings both the vulnerability but also the unexpected strength and human personality to the stock “type”. We’ve all seen Madsen scary and crazy, and he brings his playfulness along as well during the intimidation scenes, but he’s also perfect during the big “reveal” scene—which is also an aspect of Young’s script that can really be appreciated. “Doe” had no plan; by his own admission, he was having a bad day and just “snapped”, then could never turn back. Madsen makes that perfectly believable. The same can be said for the rest of the cast, right down to the two ancillary “Romeo and Juliet” runaway teens who serve no purpose but as additions to the body count, but they still feel like real human beings because of the performances. Strange as it is to say, by avoiding twists or tricks, Young’s movie is actually much stronger for it. By not trying to subvert the audience’s expectations, he actually manages to do so effortlessly.
Young should also be given high points for his direction, particularly in the manner of blocking. I could be completely off-base, but it seemed to me that The Killing Jar had a tight production time working around the tight schedules of his stars. By corralling the main players in the rear of the diner while Madsen takes certain characters aside for one-on-ones, Young is able to hide the fact that there are very few scenes where everyone is present at the same time. (Trejo, for example, never interacts physically with any other character, and dead bodies are dragged behind counters so that the actors aren’t simply corpsing around wasting valuable shooting time and money.) He and Cinematographer Gregg Easterbrook also utilize the over-the-shoulder to great effect—the best way of having a stand-in during shot-reverse-shots and a perfect money-saving technique. Best of all, he avoids calling attention to these limitations with tight, claustrophobic camera set-ups and only eagle-eyed viewers will catch these short cuts. (Of course, I just drew attention to the mind behind the curtain, but out of respect and not maliciousness, I promise!) Again, these are all valuable lessons to budgetarily-limited indies, who should definitely take note: let your actors do their jobs, think ahead, figure out the best ways to keep your movie moving. As Young also served as editor, it can’t be too absurd to think that he shot with the final edit in mind as well. Oh, and another lesson: hire Lisa Reynolds (Zombieland, The Walking Dead) for the special effects because The Killing Jar has some of the best on-screen blood of any move in recent memory—from pooling to spatter, there’s never once any of that give-away beading so familiar to the modestly-budgeted.
In fact, the only blatant misstep of The Killing Jar may be in its title. Referring to the container entomologists use to suffocate insects (as illustrated during the non-sequiter title sequence), The Killing Jar has no relation to the story told, and the only explanation I was able to summon is the suspicion that Young at one time hoped to use the moody song by Siouxsie and the Banshees for a credit accompaniment. But in its place, we get a perfectly lovely number sung by Benson herself to go along with the enigmatic title, so in the end, it’s just a shruggable element.
Best of all—and rare for this column—The Kiling Jar is readily available on DVD for your viewing pleasure. So if you’re in the mood for a good old fashioned thriller without any of that troubling post-modernism that’s become de rigueur, this one comes recommended. Official Site.