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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.
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."
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.