REVIEW: Ultraviolent, Shock-Seeking Killer Joe Is A Pulp Fiction Paradox
Slick and mean and full of piss and chicken grease, Killer Joe has worse manners than its deadly, courtly antihero. But in its own way and to its own detriment, William Friedkin’s splattery, southern gothic return to the screen seeks to amuse as well as shake and stir. What begins as a set of open provocations and genre tweaks propping up the story of a trashily blended Texas family’s encounter with an alpha hitman takes a turn through Coen and Lynch Lanes before winding up at the corner of Friedkin and Peckinpah. There a trailer ignites with violence and the tone of alternately abject and mordant depravity begins flailing like a rogue firehose.
That the Smiths are low, stupid people is easily understood, but Friedkin hardly tires of reminding us. Killer Joe opens on the middle of a stormy Texas night, and the wailing and window-banging of a fuck-up named Chris (Emile Hirsch), who is locked out of the family’s trailer. When his stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) finally responds, Chris (and the audience) comes face to fat, mossy minge with her naked crotch. Chris’s complaints find no truck with his exceptionally dense, defeated dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), who echoes Sharla’s involuted logic about not being expecting to find her stepson on the other side of the door. It feels unpromising that what could be a funny gag gets lost in the scene-flattening commotion of idiocy, which too often gets cranked so high little else gets through.
The Smiths have all kinds of boundary issues, not least when it comes to Dottie (Juno Temple), the gauzy baby doll daughter with a couple of little pink screws loose. Dottie sleepwalks, and either has crazy good hearing or crazy-girl intuition, because she cottons to Chris’s plan to kill their deadbeat mother (who remains deadbeat; we only get a brief glimpse of her corpse) from the moment he privately proposes it to Ansel. In deep to some coke dealers, Chris has word of his mother’s fifty thousand dollar life insurance payout (to Dottie) and a line on a police officer/hitman named Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). No good can come of such a scheme, of course, and no good does.
Perhaps the family’s shouty moron shtick is designed to make the arrival of a glossy, black-clad sociopath feel more like a relief. McConaughey has toned down his surf bum beam (and highlights) for the role: in his bad sheriff getup he’s a cold-eyed buck with asses to stomp. Sharing a tight frame with Joe in a typical low-angle shot, Hirsch becomes a mini-pony of a man. But it’s McConaughey’s scenes with Temple that form the twisted center of the movie; they make a pair as riveting as it is unlikely. That it is not as simple as beast-meets-beast of prey is largely a credit to the actors – each exudes an unnerving charisma that enwraps the other and together they create the movie’s only dramatically persuasive atmosphere.
It feels a little wrong saying that, given the terms of their relationship. When Chris and Ansel can’t cough up half of Joe’s fee in advance, he proposes taking Dottie as “a retainer.” Because the Smiths' is a desperate world dulled into moral nihilism by poverty and other indignities, Ansel’s response to the idea of pimping his virgin daughter out to a hired killer is that it “might just do her some good.” We feel scared for Dottie, though after being soothed out of her initial upset she doesn’t seem that scared herself, which of course is really scary. The lead up to Joe’s claiming of his collateral and the chillingly erotic scene that results feels like Friedkin hitting a mesmerizing stride. Instead it forms a peak in what slackens into another, if notably performed and perverse, pulp fiction paradox: Though desperate to shock, its success depends on our desensitization. (Killer Joe received an NC-17 rating and is perhaps the latest rival to the kink and violent degradations of 2010’s The Killer Inside Me.)
Much of the film takes place in close quarters, spaces well parsed by Friedkin’s camera and imbued with a sense of confined desperation instead of plain old claustrophobia. Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts adapted the script from his own play (this is Friedkin’s second Letts adaptation, after 2006’s Bug), and as often as a dark, stage-y laugh line falls flat, Joe’s embroidered (and then fearsome) tones and Dottie’s loaded non sequiturs (including her casual mention, after things have gone miserably awry, that it might still all work out — “as long as I don’t get mad”) seem to land exactly how and where they’re meant to be. It seems likely it was the creepy sexual content and not the horrific violence that earned the MPAA’s admonishment, a bias Killer Joe seems to repeat in moving from its glimpses of genuine human darkness toward the more generic drawing of bright red blood.
Killer Joe is in limited release Friday.