William Friedkin’s Killer Joe is the kind of film where you don’t know whether to appreciate it for its audacity or condemn it for its perversity. I suspect most audiences will go both ways on it, not just while it’s playing but long after they have left the theater. Exactly how is one supposed to respond to a scene where fellatio is performed on a fried chicken drumstick by a woman whose nose has been broken and has blood smeared all over her face? Here is a film that’s intended to make you laugh one minute and get your skin crawling the next; love it, hate it, or both, there’s no denying the skill that went into it, from the spot-on casting to the impeccable performances to the uncompromising use of dark humor and cringe-inducing depictions of violence. Let it not be said that this film doesn’t earn every bit of its NC-17 rating.
As was the case with Friedkin’s previous film, the merciless paranoia thriller Bug, it has been adapted by Tracy Letts from his own stage play – and I have to admit, it’s very difficult for me to imagine how this story could ever have been told through the medium of live theater. It takes place in an unspecified area just outside of Dallas, Texas, where it seems lightning storms and rain are nightly occurrences. At the heart of the plot is the Smith family, each and every member a real piece of work. The son, Chris (Emile Hirsch), is in a serious pickle because he doesn’t have the cash to pay off an outstanding debt to the drug dealers who are looking to kill him; he goes to his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), with the idea of having his mother, who also happens to be Ansel’s ex-wife, murdered so that they can collect the insurance money.
We never actually meet the intended victim, but on the basis of how she’s described all throughout the film, it would seem she’s an awful person the world would be better off without. Perhaps Chris and Ansel are right about her, and perhaps they aren’t. All we do know is that we get to know both of them quite well, and to be perfectly frank, they’re status as human beings is open for debate. Rather than do the deed themselves, they hire a contract killer named Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who’s also a police detective, and by all accounts a highly respected one. He’s a cold, calculating man – handsome, a smooth talker, not necessarily without some charm, and always in control of the situation. For obvious legal reasons, he remains rather hush-hush about his methods. But when it comes to his fee, which is naturally nonnegotiable, he’s all specifics.
He demands, for example, that he claim something or someone as a retainer until the insurance comes through. Here enters Chris’ teenage sister, the simple, soft-spoken, easily charmed Dottie (Juno Temple). She overhears Chris and Ansel conspiring, and she agrees that killing her mother would be a good idea. Not long after, she meets Joe, who so thoroughly uses her naivety to his advantage that we’re torn between admiring his cleverness and hating his abuse of power. The single most unsettling scene involves the loss of her virginity; rather than simply ravage her on a bed in a quick moment of passion, he orchestrates a dominant/submissive routine down to the smallest detail. He tells her to strip and put on a black evening dress, and after turning around and placing his cuffs, gun, badge, and pepper spray on the table, he has her come up behind him and gently put her hands down his pants.
Ansel’s current wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon), is introduced in a shot that reveals her only from the waist down, which wouldn’t be worth mentioning were it not for the fact that she’s without underwear. When we do finally see her face and observe her actions as the story unfolds, it’s like a typecast come to life – an older woman that dresses provocatively and wears too much makeup, especially around the eyes, with a vocabulary she all too often enhances with crude four-letter words. She has a part to play in the scheme to murder Ansel’s ex-wife, although it isn’t what anyone in the film thinks it is. Incriminating photos of her work their way into the plot; they’re but one of several elements that contribute to the final scene, the shocking brutality of which is matched only by a final revelation that will throw audiences completely for a loop.
Serving, I suppose, as a preview of the finale is a scene where Chris is beaten by biker thugs. He spends the rest of the film limping and with purple bruises all over his face. I don’t think the violence in Killer Joe was intended to be fun or entertaining, although given the film’s stage roots and Letts’ affinity for characters struggling with moral and spiritual questions, I’m hard pressed to say that the violence is in any way allegorical. It is, however, very much consistent with the Southern gothic genre, a category this film most certainly falls into. I cannot sit here and say that I liked this movie. Truth be told, I don’t think I would ever want to watch it again. Having said that, I recognized what it was aiming for, and I definitely appreciated it for its technical merits and the strong performances.