It’s fitting that the image on the poster for Killer Joe features a deep-fried piece of chicken in the shape of the “Lone-Star State” splattered with blood. Aside from the obvious indication that it takes place in Texas, the blood could easily be construed as hot-sauce. People’s preference of fired chicken is similar in a lot of ways to the public’s liking of films. You have regular chicken and spicy. Plus you can always slather on the hot sauce for an extra bit of kick. Make no mistake, William Friedkin‘s (The Exorcist, French Connection, Sorcerer) new film is certainly a hot and spicy piece of cinema that will not be for everyone but will be savored by those willing to give it a bite.
Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is in deep with the wrong people. In order to pay back the $6,000 he owes the Texas gangsters that are on the hunt for him, Chris devises a plan to kill his mother who has a life insurance policy that awards Chris’s younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) $50,000 upon death. Utilizing the help of his father and stepmother, Chris hires Joe (Matthew McConaughey); a Texas lawman who does a little bit of killing on the side. The only downside to this masterplan is that Joe requires $25,000 up front – no exceptions – which Chris and his redneck family don’t have. In favor of the money, Joe asks for the virginal Dottie as a retainer for the cash. As you can expect not everything goes as planned.
Screenwriter Tracey Letts previously collaborated with Friedkin on the underrated, psychological 2006 film Bug. Letts is known for intense character studies for the stage including Bug, Killer Joe, and the Tony and Pulitzer Award winning show August: Osage County. While Bug was a focused and intense tale of paranoia that was completely void of any humor, Killer Joe brilliantly rolls around in it in a messy fashion like a pig in shit. You find yourself equally repulsed and amused by the chaotic banter and relationships between the Smith family members. Gina Gershon displays just the right amount of crazy as the stepmother while Thomas Haden Church’s dry and understated performance as the father ignites some of the most amusing scenes with his straight faced delivery. When Gershon pulls a loose string on Church’s suit-coat in one sequence the result is an exchange of expressions that recalls the great “Stoneface” Buster Keaton. Lett’s darkly comedic writing is elevated by the inspired casting and bold performances.
The two actors who are given the most nuanced roles are Juno Temple and Matthew McConaughey. Temple in particular plays a character that seems to suffer from some form of mental handicap while still being grounded and aware of her own innocence. It’s a unique character featuring a staggering performance by Temple that is best illustrated by the very first scene we see of her. Dottie is shown spread across her bed in a dreamlike state holding a snow-globe with a ballerina balancing in the center. This seemingly insignificant object can be seen as a metaphor for the bubble that Chris and the rest of his family try to contain Dottie in through the film. Unbeknownst to them, in the process of attaining the money they all plan to share, they recklessly shatter this protective world she was held captive in leading to devastating results for all. McConaughey is on an indie roll as of late between this and Richard Linklater’s Bernie. While both require the Austin native to play Texas authority figures neither share any other common attributes. This is a testament to the actor’s abilities to create a memorable character. Joe, decked-out in an all black Johnny Cash suit, encompasses all things seductive and evil. His quiet demeanor sometimes gives way to instances of precise language that makes him all the more creepy and enthralling to watch. Every scene that is shared between the two actors result in the most captivating sequences to watch in the film. Whether they are simply sitting around a kitchen table exchanging stories like in their first meeting or if they are alone at night on their first “date,” each scene seems to boil with anticipation leaving the viewer not knowing where exactly this film might go.
Like I previously stated, this film goes to dark and twisted areas that might not be in the taste of the general public. I found myself during two sequences sitting in a crowded theater feeling extremely uncomfortable. As a horror and genre film fan, I mean that in the best way possible. Many will not enjoy that feeling or those scenes but never do they feel gratuitous or for the sake of being purely exploitative. Though some may argue that the finale – which is one of the two mentioned scenes – does in fact cross that line which gets a little wavy throughout the flm. Keep in mind, the film is NC-17 so prudes and squeamish readers beware. With all the zany characters, crazy hijinks, and highly violent and sexual scenes, Friedkin retains a master’s control over it all while combining all of these possibly dangerous ingredients into a film that never goes completely off the rails. It’s a perverse crime-noir that seems to distance itself from other neo-noir films by relocating itself in a red-neck, trailer-park part of Texas. However, you still feel at times the familiar air of the directors and films that have come before it; the dark and biting humor of the Cohen brothers (Blood Simple, Fargo) comes to mind and David Cronenberg’s recent fits of sexualized violence in Eastern Promises (the bathhouse sequence) and A History of Violence (the sudden and wild sex scene on the stairs) both feel like possible inspirations on the tone of some scenes.
Outside of a few scenes that come across as unnecessary and overly drawn out – seeing Joe at the police station and Chris attempting and failing to elude the gangsters who are after there money – my only major issue with the film is the performance by Emile Hirsch. His wide-eyed, overly-excited demeanor throughout the film seems purposefully in contrast to his father’s cool and calm mentality, yet it comes across as unnatural in several scenes and looks as if he’s feeling the need to make his voice heard amid so many greater performances. Thankfully the film exists as more of an ensemble piece as the film shifts back and forth between all of the sad, low-life players involved in this outrageous situation. Letts and Friedkin have once again proved they are a dynamic duo that likes to push the envelope. After shocking audiences almost 40 years ago with a possessed child who spat green vomit and humped a crucifix, Friedkin will undoubtedly make your head spin yet again with at least one sequence that will go down in history as one of the more shocking “sex” scenes put on film. Killer Joe isn’t all shocks and gasps though. Below the layer of filth, greed, cigarette butts and empty beer cans, lies several Oscar caliber performances in Friedkin’s devilishly funny noir that is unlike any other film that I have seen this year.