In this era of media overstimulation, it’s a miracle when a movie without any kind of special effects or unique story hook can make you sit up and pay attention. Audiences today are used to monumental helpings of style and bombast so it takes something really primal and powerful to cut through that clatter. It doesn’t help that the issue is also confused by a multiplex-aided-and-abetted cinema of psuedo-shocks (the Saw series, Rob Zombie’s films, etc.) that have all the brawn but none of the brains.
Thankfully, there are still movies being made that aren’t afraid to go after the audience where they live — and they can actually get the job done because they know how to strike with the finesse of a scalpel-toting surgeon. Killer Joe is the most recent example of this kind of movie. Don’t let the small cast of characters or the crime flick premise fool you: the people who made Killer Joe know how to get to the viewer in ways that don’t require a gallon of stage blood or a multi-million dollar budget.
Tracy Letts adapted his own 1991 play for this film and the result plays like a mixture of Jim Thompson noir plotting and Tennessee Williams-style Southern gothic melodrama, with a dash of John Waters shock power thrown in. Its catalyst is Chris (Emile Hirsch), a small-timer who finds himself the wrong side of a local crime boss when his mom steals some cocaine he was supposed to sell. His solution is to put a hit on his mom since the beneficiary of her life insurance policy is Dottie (Juno Temple), his childlike, emotionally damaged little sister. He gets the plan rolling by conning his dimwitted divorcee dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) in helping him secure the services of Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a crooked Dallas cop who moonlights as a hired killer.
They run into problems when they can’t pay for his services up front — but Joe offers them a counter-proposition: if they allow him to regularly bed Dottie as a “retainer,” he’ll commit the killing and sit tight until they can collect the insurance money. Everyone except Chris is fine with this, including Ansel’s new sexpot wife Sharla (Gina Gershon), but no crime noir murder plot ever goes smoothly. There will be complications, maybe a double-cross or two and all of these errors will incur the wrath of Joe, who hides a terrifying propensity for cruel violence behind his honeyed drawl.
A lot of critics have been quick to dismiss Killer Joe as a style exercise in lurid pulp but such shortsighted dismissals do a great injustice to the amazing filmmaking on display here. It all starts with Letts’ fantastic script: he takes the kind of material that could have been toothless or commonplace in other hands and makes it fresh through pure fearlessness. He also deserves praise for his skill with dialogue, which hits the right blend of stylization and southern working-class authenticity, and the unflinching way he follows his characters’ bad behaviors to their ultimate end.
An important thing to note is that as over the top as the story gets, it is also fuelled by a keen understanding of human nature. Virtually all the characters end up doing things that are dumb or terrible — yet we also are allowed to see moments where the same characters are kind or vulnerable in ways that keep them from devolving into caricatures. The sophistication of these characterizations ensure that the audience remains involved in their fates when the going gets grim. What they do as the story progresses often goes beyond the pale but it always rings true: even its most brutal or carnal moments, Killer Joe uses such behavior to reveal additional sides of each character (after all, action is character, particularly when the circumstances informing the action are dire).
Speaking of characters, the acting in Killer Joe is nothing short of phenomenal, with everyone bringing their A-game. Hirsch does excellent work in a character role, keying in instinctively to the piece’s pitch-black sense of humor (his Wile E. Coyote-style facial reactions when things go horribly wrong are priceless). Juno Temple in particular is a major find, playing her “baby doll” characterization in an understated yet intense way, investing herself in the role in a way that makes her character both sympathetic and a bit scary. Church might do the subtlest work, playing his character’s “dim bulb” notes with witty subtlety but eventually revealing additional levels to his characterization during the finale that transform it from comedic device to tragic persona.
That said, there are two performances that will permanently burn themselves into your cinematic memory. Gershon has gotten a lot of notice for the bravery of her work and indeed does fearless work, baring herself both physically and psychologically in a couple of scenes that would make most Hollywood leading ladies run away screaming. She shares one of those scenes at the end with McConaughey, whose work here will make you instantly forgive all those awful chick-flicks he spent a decade wasting time in. He gives a performance of coiled intensity here, first purring his lines with a quiet machismo and slowly adding layers of mental instability that result in an outpouring of scalding brutality. His maniac is the real deal, the kind of madman who is doubly effective because he hides his inner horror well enough to sneak up on you.
Finally, Killer Joe is beautifully orchestrated by William Friedkin. He previously teamed with Letts for the excellent Bug a few years back and he taps right into the propulsive, snowballing rhythms of Letts’ work here. The script is full of tricky narrative shifts, bouncing from low comedy to shocks to quietly searing drama, but Friedkin modulates the piece beautifully and never misses a step. New directors could learn a lot from how he offsets snappily-paced dialogue exchanges with moodier, more languid scenes like the moment where Joe patiently seduces a skittish, chatty Dottie. Best of all, when the script’s finale calls for a full throttle approach, Friedkin never hesitates and pushes his actors up to the edge to get the right stomach-churning effect.
On the latter note, there’s been a lot of hemming and hawing from the daily-review brigade about the operatic brutality of the film’s last twenty minutes but the ending is actually pitched perfectly: Killer Joe is about desperate people toying with forces beyond their comprehension so when they have to deal with the consequences, it’s only appropriate that the payback should be brutal enough to shatter their senses — and those of the audience.
Simply put, you’ll walk away from Killer Joe feeling jolted. Some will find the experience bracing and some will find it repellent but you can rest assured that all comers will walk away feeling something. That’s reason enough for daring cineastes to praise Killer Joe to the heavens.