KILLER JOE (2012)
KILLER JOE (2012)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares
William Friedkin is the director who gave us such classics as THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and THE EXORCIST (1973), and his most recent movie, KILLER JOE (2012), is proof that the man is alive and well, and still turning out top-notch work. For some reason, the movie is only in limited release in a few cities. On second thought, there is a reason: the movie received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, and Friedkin refused to cut it to get an R, which makes it harder to market. I’m assuming that has something to do with it. Did Friedkin make the right choice? I’d say so.
Based on a play by writer (and sometimes actor) Tracy Letts—who also collaborated with Friedkin on his last movie, BUG (2006)—KILLER JOE is a tale of seedy characters living desperate lives, and the lengths they will go to dig themselves out, even when it’s clear they’re just digging themselves deeper down.
The movie opens by introducing us to the Smith family. Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a gambling-addicted low-life who owes a lot of money to a loan shark. After having a fight with his mother, Chris goes to see his dad, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church)-who lives in a trailer and doesn’t seem very bright, about a possible solution to his problems. Chris’s mom is Ansel’s ex-wife, and he’s now married to his second wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon). Right away, the family members are bickering and hitting each other, and you know they don’t have much of a shot at getting up from the bottom. But Chris thinks he has the answers to their problems: what about killing his mother for her insurance money? Ansel listens, because he’s too dumb not to be seduced by the idea.
Oh yeah, there’s also Dottie (Juno Temple), Ansel’s daughter and Chris’s sister, who seems a little slow and who lives with her daddy and Sharla.
In order to get away with the murder, Chris suggests they hire someone outside the family to do it. This is where Killer Joe comes in. Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a Dallas police detective who also has a “side business” as a hit man. For twenty-five grand, he’ll get rid of Chris’s drunken mother (who we only see briefly in the movie). But there’s a problem. Chris and Ansel can’t pay him his money up front, as Joe demands. They won’t have the money until after the deed is done and they get the insurance money, since they know the mom’s policy makes Dottie the beneficiary. So they have no way to pay Joe beforehand. He is about to walk out the door when he decides to make them a deal. He’ll take a retainer until he gets paid, and that retainer is Chris’s underage sister. They hesitate, then agree to it, and set up a special “private” dinner between Joe and Dottie, so they can get to know each other….
From here, it’s a matter of whether Joe goes through with the murder, and what happens to Dottie. There are also a few double-crosses along the way.
You can tell that KILLER JOE is based on a stage play at times, since there’s a lot of dialogue here , and some of the scenes seem a little stagey. However, this does not detract from the film version, mainly because the story is well-written and the acting is so damn good.
Hirsch is suitably scruffy and pathetic (yet also sympathetic at times) as Chris, a guy who gets himself deeper and deeper in debt, but who wants to redeem himself in the end, even if his idea of redemption doesn’t exactly make a lot of sense. Church is also well-cast as Ansel, who willingly agrees to awful things, partly because he just doesn’t seem to have any kind of moral compass, but also because he might just be a little slower than some folks. Gershon is pretty amazing as Sharla; a trashy trailer queen who answers the door without pants on and thinks she has all the men in her life wrapped around her little finger. Gershon has shown fearlessness in her roles before, and KILLER JOE just ups the ante. This is a woman who will go to great lengths when she needs to in a performance. And it’s for that reason that I think she’s very underrated as an actress. And then we get to the main characters here.
Juno Temple does a great job as Dottie. While Dottie is supposed to be fairly young, it’s clear that Temple is over 18 (for the obvious reasons), but she’s good at emanating a naïve innocence that hovers between youthful exhuberance and brain damage (her father is Ansel, after all, but we also find out that when she was little, her mother tried to smother her death, and thought she had, which may have deprived her brain of precious oxygen for a spell). You care about Dottie, and you can understand why some of the characters feel the need to protect her, even while they’re selling her like property. For her part, Dottie is also willful and may be a little smarter than her family thinks she is, since she’s capable of selfish acts when given the tiny bit of power to act them out. Her character has been compared to Carroll Baker in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ BABY DOLL (1956), and the comparison is apt. Strangely enough, we most recently saw Temple as Catwoman’s sidekick in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.
But the real reason to see KILLER JOE is Matthew McConaughey, who is simply awe-inspiring here as Joe Cooper. Intense, always in control, and downright scary, Killer Joe is a character who exudes cool, even as he does the vilest things. It’s fascinating to see McConaughey here, playing against type as a vicious murderer in contrast to his roles in countless light romantic comedies. There is nothing light about Joe. He’s a stone-cold killer, and even his “romantic” side is focused on a slightly slow, underage girl who doesn’t know any better. Needless to say, there are times when he makes your skin crawl.
In every scene McConaughey is in, he’s the camera’s main focus. He owns this movie and it’s such an excellent showcase for his acting chops that I think he really deserves an Oscar nomination for this role, even though he will probably be overlooked because Joe is so unpleasant, and this movie is so damn dark and disturbing.
McConaughey’s role here reminded me a little of Lou Ford, the protagonist of THE KILLER INSIDE ME, the classic novel by crime fiction god Jim Thompson (twice filmed, first in 1976 with Stacy Keach and 2010 with Casey Affleck), but McConaughey makes Joe all his own. I’d really like to see him in more roles like this, because he was fascinating to watch. Kind of like a coiled, venomous snake, walking around on two legs.
As for that NC-17 rating, I didn’t see a lot here that should have denied it an R, but there are two scenes the MPAA might have been squeamish about. One involves the outcome of Joe and Dottie’s first “date” in that trailer. The other involves Joe, Sharla, and a fried chicken leg, that is bound to upset some viewers.
Despite the subject matter, and the fact that there really isn’t one character here who deserves the redemption they crave, KILLER JOE is a solid, emotionally-powerful piece of work. Friedkin shows he’s still at the top of his game, and everyone involved here does an exceptional job. Obviously, a movie this dark is not for everyone, and there are people who probably shouldn’t see KILLER JOE. But if you think you can handle it, it’s worth wading in the slime for 103 minutes. Hell, there are even a few moments of (dark) humor to keep it from being overly oppressive.
In a summer that gave us superhero extravaganzas like THE AVENGERS and sci-fi mammoths like PROMETHEUS, I found KILLER JOE to be both more emotionally effective, and more satisfying as a cinema experience.
I give it four and a half knives.
© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares
LL Soares gives William Friedkin’s KILLER JOE ~ four and a half knives.