Written by: Tracy Letts
Directed by: William Friedkin
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch and Juno Temple
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“I heard y'all talking about killing mama. I think it's a good idea."
“Everything’s bigger in Texas,” or so the phrase goes, and, if Killer Joe is any indication, that includes the black-hearted foibles of its inhabitants. Initially conceived as a stage play by Tracy Letts, this hicksploitation-noir becomes something of an elemental, absurdist Greek tragedy under the direction of William Friedkin. The film provides evidence that the 77 year-old filmmaker still isn’t very interested in pulling punches, as he wallows in the unseemly corners of Texas trailer trash culture, where the only way out is through even darker, more disturbing corners of the human psyche.
Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that Friedkin asks us to also find some sort of morbid humor in the proceedings, as we follow the quickly deteriorating case of Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), a twenty-something loser who’s behind on his gambling debts to the local mob. Desperate, he cooks up a scheme with his father (Thomas Hayden Church) to contract hitman Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) to cash in a substantial life insurance policy. The meticulously crafted plan beings to unravel almost immediately, as Joe demands an-up front payment that the two can’t possibly make; however, the sociopathic hitman has an eye for Dottie (Juno Temple), the virginal daughter of the Smith clan, so he agrees to take her as a “retainer” for his services.
Killer Joe is a perfect, Texas-fried B-side to Fargo; like the Coens, Friedkin subtly delights in the folly of his hare-brained characters. However, instead of opting to gloss over it with a detached quirkiness, Friedkin presents a wholly unpleasant experience that’s mired in grimy, exploitative luridness. The Texas sky is often streaked by lighting and rumbles with an ominous portent as the characters find themselves drowning in their own tempest of self-destruction. From the opening scene, which finds Chris frantically pounding away at the trailer now inhabited by his father, step-mother (Gina Gershon), and sister as a dog barks hysterically in the background, Killer Joe is unrelenting in its intensity and mood. Its tone is in perfect pitch with its narrative, which eventually tightens like a noose as the plot continues to unspool.
Unlike the Coens, Friedkin doesn’t provide much in the way of likable human beings, though. The Smiths are a bumbling set of shit-kicking low-lives, with Chris acting as the de-facto ringleader despite not being that much brighter than the rest of them. Hirsch is completely effective in the role by not allowing for an ounce of sympathy to creep in; sure, it helps that he’s written to be a complete creep, but there’s never a moment where it feels like he’s been made a victim of circumstance. Instead, he’s made his bed, and he continues to shit in it; as if killing his mother weren’t enough, he effectively prostitutes his sister out to Joe, and there’s even some vaguely incestuous stuff going on there that makes things even more complicated. Church is wonderful as the dim, hound-dog Ansel, the patriarch who gets all too easily talked into this deal with the devil. His performance is comparatively low-key, which makes him a source of perfectly deadpanned comic relief when the film finally erupts. It’s also easy to assume that he’s used to being manipulated by his wife, and Gershon truly embraces the role of this trashy trailer park queen that might quietly represent the worst of this bunch.
McConaughey is the singular presence presiding over the film as Joe. The past couple of years have seen the actor rescue himself from a career track that’s wasted his talents in easily digestible rom-coms, and his performance here is career-defining. Instead of sauntering in and taking over the film with his natural charisma, McConaughey almost suppresses it; while he’s still magnetic, there’s something sinister and empty about his character. He’s actually a detective who just moonlights as a hitman , but we never see that other side of him, as Friedkin has him wander in as an enigmatic, predatory figure. At first, he resembles a black-clad anti-hero from the Old West, an image that almost promises some sense of order, and Friedkin even comes close to manipulating audiences into believing he’ll deliver some sort of outlaw justice during the film’s climax. None ever comes, though, as Joe is just a psychopathic agent of chaos whose desires and motivations feel primal and sexual. His interest in Dottie seems like a pure conquest; while he speaks in mannered terms about payments and services rendered, it ultimately feels like Joe is just plain old crazy.
Speaking of Dottie, she’s the closest thing to some sort of empathetic center. Temple straddles a fine line between playing her as a white-trash Lolita and a Manic Pixie Dream Girl; she’s sort of a victim, but she’s also pretty much complicit in the whole deal too (upon meeting Joe, she immediately questions if he’s going to kill her mom). Dottie’s an odd element in the mix—there’s a sense that she’s sort of enjoying Joe’s perverse affection, but there’s also a sense that she’s been twisted into that situation since her life has been so horrible that Joe actually represents an escape. Like everyone else in the movie, she’s got stories that she loves to tell, but there’s something unhealthy about her wispy nostalgia for a past that’s included exactly one elementary school boyfriend and her own mother’s attempt to murder her as a baby.
In the end, it feels like Killer Joe really comes down to her; even as everything around her crumbles, there’s still some slight chance of hope for her, at least. Of course, Friedkin refuses to even dwell on that for too long, as the climax is riotous and hellishly uncomfortable. I never thought we’d see a dinner scene featuring McConaughey that’s somehow even more bizarre than the one in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (at one point, he even threatens to rip someone’s skin off and wear it). Appropriately enough, Killer Joe shares some demented DNA with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, as it, too, deals in a twisted sense of family values and echoes Hooper’s penchant for mixing the macabre with the absurd. It probably captures the original film’s oddball mean streak better than most of that franchise’s sequels because it’s not afraid to leave you squirming and chuckling despite yourself at times.
This is Friedkin’s second collaboration with Letts, who also provided the source material for the equally unsettling and strange Bug. Both films reveal a director who isn’t interested in settling down into safe material; however, just as he did 40 years ago in The Exorcist, he’s not just all about empty, juvenile provocation. Killer Joe is more than that, and, above all, it’s a nicely unhinged, hayseed riff on an old film noir standard, with Friedkin masterfully pulling the strings and effortlessly relaying this bleak tale of sociopathic madness. One of 2012’s best films, it wasn’t easy to catch in theaters due to the NC-17 rating, but Lionsgate recently brought it to home video. Their Blu-ray disc is a fantastic release that features an excellent presentation, and it includes a decent amount of special features. Headlining the extras is a commentary with Friedkin, which is joined by a “Stage to Screen” feature, a SXSW intro from the director, and a red band trailer. A fierce, smart, and well-crafted display of savagery, it’s wildly entertaining—even if it feels like it shouldn’t be. Buy it!
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