Directed by: William Friedkin.
Written by: Tracy Letts based on his play.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey (Killer Joe Cooper), Emile Hirsch (Chris Smith), Juno Temple (Dottie Smith), Thomas Haden Church (Ansel Smith), Gina Gershon (Sharla Smith).
Whatever you think of Killer Joe – and here is a movie that I think it is nearly impossible not to have an opinion on – you have to admit this: it goes for broke. In an era where most American movies play it safe, there is nothing safe about Killer Joe. It is the darkest comedy imaginable – a film about a family of cruel, dumb, violent, self-centered people who care about nothing about themselves. They are the very definition of trailer trash. They make the mistake of hiring an even crueler, more violent, more self-centered then they are to kill another family member to collect the insurance money. The problem is, he isn’t dumb like the rest of them – and his mistake is to overestimate the intelligence of the people he’s getting involved in – and believe me, he knows they’re idiots when he meets them.
The family is the Smiths. One dark and stormy night, Chris (Emile Hirsch) bangs on the door of the trailer the rest of the family shares wanting to be let in. When the door finally flings open, he is greeted to the sight of his step-mother Sharla’s (Gina Gershon) unclad nether regions, which is the last thing he wants to see. He needs to talk to his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church). Chris mother, Ansel's ex-wife, has screwed Chris over yet again – stealing the cocaine he got on credit from a drug dealer who now wants his $6,000 or Chris' blood. But Chris has an idea on how to get the money. From what his mother’s boyfriend has told him, his mother has a $50,000 insurance policy, and his simple minded, younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) is the beneficiary. He has also heard about man – Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas detective, who has a side business of killing people. After all, what good is this worthless woman doing anyone?
So, they meet with Killer Joe – who first stops by the trailer, and finds Dottie alone. I’m not sure how old Dottie is supposed to be – she refers to herself once as 12, but physically she is clearly older (Temple is really 21, although admittedly a young looking 21), but mentally and emotionally, describing her as 12 would be generous. He eventually meets with Chris and Ansel, and doesn’t like the fact that he'll have to wait until the insurance payout to get paid. However, he would be interested if they would give him a retainer – Dottie.
The film is based upon the first play by Tracy Letts – who also wrote the screenplay. Letts would later go onto win a Pulitzer Prize for his brilliant August: Osage County, which when I saw it on Broadway a few years ago, was the greatest theater going experience of my life (full disclosure – I don’t go to many plays). If the two plays share anything in common, it’s that they center on a dysfunctional family – although if the characters in August: Osage County could see the Smiths, they would feel pretty damn good about themselves.
Letts makes no attempt to hide his contempt for his characters or make them sympathetic in any way. In fact, he openly mocks them, mostly through Killer Joe who has a number of darkly comic lines that you cannot help but laugh at, because they're funny and true, and delivered by a pitch perfect Matthew McConaughey. McConaughey has remade his image in the past couple of years, taking on more challenging roles than the romcoms that he known for. Much like his brilliant work in Steven Soderberghs Magic Mike earlier this summer, McConaughey uses his natural charms in much darker way than in the past. He is great in every scene in this movie – as the cold psychopath who will eventually torment, humiliate, and beat pretty much every other character in the movie. But there are two scenes that are truly chilling – one is when he slowly, surely "seduces" Dottie out of her virginity, which is as chilling as anything in recent memory – and most likely the reason the film got an NC-17 rating in America, even though there is nothing overtly, visually graphic about the scene. Then there is another – undoubtedly the cruelest scene you will see this year – as after he breaks Sharla's nose, he completely humiliates her by making her perform fellatio on a piece of fried chicken. If that sounds ridiculous or comical, you have to see the movie to see just how it plays. McConaughey finds a new level of depravity behind those eyes I have often thought looked vacant in the past. This is one of the very best performances of the year so far.
Not to be outdone, the rest of the cast raises their game to match him. Emile Hirsch is an interesting choice to play Chris, but a great one. He has often played smart characters, who still end up getting in over their heads. Here, he is simply a guy who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else, when in reality, he’s just as stupid as the rest of them – perhaps more so, since he cannot tell when he’s being set up. Thomas Haden Church gives his best performance since his comeback role in Sideways as the dim Ansel, who may be an idiot, but at least seems to know what is best for him at any given time – no matter who has to screw over. Gina Gershon lets it all hang out – literally and figuratively – in her performance, crafting an instantly hateable character in Shayla, who still doesn’t deserve what she gets. I doubt many actresses would sign up to do what she does in this film – let alone be able to pull it off. And then there’s Juno Temple as Dottie, who may seem sweet, naïve and stuck in a permanent state of arrested development, until, that is, you listen to just what she is saying. She may well not be as naïve as he appears to be – as she presents herself to everyone else in the film. And the final shot in the movie may just imply she isn’t quite as stupid as he appears either.
The film was directed by William Friedkin, who had two huge hits back in the 1970s with The French Connection and The Exorcist, and has spent the last 40 years doing dark thrillers and action movies, some of which are great (To Live and Die in LA, Sorcerer) and some of which clearly are not (Jade). He found new life teaming with Letts in 2007 to adapt the play Bug – starring a brilliant Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd, and is the most claustrophobic film this side of Roman Polanski's Repulsion. Teaming up with Letts again, the two have outdone themselves. The film is supposedly set in Dallas, but we see none of the wealth associated with the city, but just the broken down parts that are usually ignored. This is a world of low rent trailer parks, with barking pit bulls outside, sleazy strip clubs, dirty garages, off tracking betting establishments, and a closed pool parlor. I assume that most of the play was set in the family’s trailer – where most of the movie takes place – but while Friedkin certainly opens the play up a bit, it wallows in the same sort of poverty stricken wasteland. The cinematography by the great Caleb Deschannel, captures this in all its seedy glory.
To me, there is no denying that Killer Joe is a brilliantly written, directed and especially acted movie. You may well hate the film – there really is no way I could convince you otherwise if you did, nor could I blame you that after this review, you decide you don’t want to put yourself through the experience of watching this film. It is utterly disgusting and cruel from start to finish, without a single redeeming character. And yet, I couldn’t help but be drawn into this world of depravity and violence because it so was so vividly realized on every level. Friedkin, Letts and their cast goes for broke with Killer Joe – and they succeed brilliantly, even if most people still wouldn’t want to see the result.