(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on August 3, 2012.)
The tagline for the Killer Joe posters reads “A TOTALLY TWISTED DEEP-FRIED TEXAS REDNECK TRAILER PARK MURDER STORY” over a picture of what looks to be a piece of fried chicken in the shape of the state of Texas, with some blood spatter off to the side. The marketing folks at LD Entertainment aren’t joking around; this movie, adapted by writer Tracy Letts from his own stageplay, is everything they advertise. An interesting, quick view into the shadier side of trailer park trash, Killer Joe doesn’t waste any time getting down and dirty.
Rated NC-17 for “graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality”, Killer Joe makes us inhabit the run-down world of the Smith family: father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), whose dim-witted simplicity is used and exploited by his family, especially his new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon); son Chris (Emile Hirsch), who’s stuck in a financial crisis after his good-for-nothing mother Adele (Ansel’s ex-wife) steals his drug stash that he’s supposed to have sold for drug boss Digger Soames ; and virginal daughter Dottie (Juno Temple), whose innocence Chris is trying to save from the world. As Chris owes thousands of dollars he doesn’t have and can’t get from his father, the two of them decide to hire “Killer Joe” Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a Texas detective moonlighting as a murderer-for-hire. The target? Adele. The purpose? Not only to get her out of the way, but for the insurance money, which is the only way the Smiths will be able to pay Killer Joe. However, Joe won’t take the assignment purely on spec, so he requests a retainer payment, but not in any currency that can be pulled out of a bank: what he wants is Dottie.
The rest of director William Friedkin’s movie plays almost like a Rob Zombie movie, but without the extreme gore or the redneck extremes. That’s not to say there aren’t any rednecks in the movie; it’s just that they’re not Rob Zombie rednecks – the kind for whom life makes no sense. Here, we have fairly sensible human beings on the lower end of the societal totem pole who are pushed to their limits; with the resources available to them, they only make the decisions they know how to make. We’re shown how the other half sometimes lives, and it isn’t always comfortable. From the opening seconds to the closing chaotic minutes, Killer Joe earns its NC-17 rating by not being completely and irresponsibly ostentatious, but by providing an unflinching look at the various realities of each character over the film’s running time. We see the bloody results of repeated intimidations; we see the few choices the overly poor Smith family can make; we see the measures one resorts to in order to take care of his family; and we also see some of the most audacious subjugation ever committed to film.
This relatively low-key movie, despite its rating, is provocative and runs with such terrifically dark humor bolstered by knockout performances. There’s not one bad performance in this film, and my hat goes off especially to Matthew McConaughey – I haven’t seen him perform this well since Bill Paxton’s Frailty from 2002. In my opinion, a good killer needs to adapt to each situation as he or she meets it; in that, McConaughey plays Joe as a snake, using his tricks to slither up close to each participant and putting them on edge, striking only when necessary. As his polar opposite, Juno Temple brings a sly sweetness to Dottie, never quite knowing whether she’s a girl or a woman; in giving us little bits of both, it’s her character arc we’re interested in, and it’s also the one that pays off the most. As this film was originally a play, I imagined being able to see something like this produced at one of our local theater companies, such as Forum Theatre, Theater Alliance, or WSC Avant Bard; the film’s ending, complete with its unexpected smash cut to black, reminded me very much of plays that I’ve seen from them. If you don’t want to wait for one of them to produce it locally, give Killer Joe a view instead of going to your local multiplex for the latest in big-budget wizardry.