There’s something very wrong here.
Movies with an NC-17 rating are rare enough to begin with, but seeing such a film in a mainstream theater chain is unheard of in this day and age. Yet as I live and breathe, here is an NC-17 movie playing at one of my local Regal theaters. I was obliged to attend as soon as I heard the news, because this was too weird to be true and too good to last. Hell, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a leprechaun sitting in the theater when I got there.
Of course, I didn’t need much motivation to go see Killer Joe. Matthew McConaughey is at the top of his game right now, and I was perfectly happy to see him take the title role in a fucked-up X-rated thrill ride. The rest of the cast is quite good as well, including such actors as Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, and Thomas Haden Church. And then the film threw in Gina Gershon of Showgirls, Bound, and Love Ranch. Even stranger, all of this is under the direction of the legendary William Friedkin (yes, the same guy who made The Exorcist and The French Connection).
With such a motley mix of talent behind it, I had no idea what to expect when I entered the theater. What I ended up getting was a character drama about love, revenge, betrayal, homicide, stupidity, sleaze, and general insanity, all centered around a family so fucked up that calling them dysfunctional would be a compliment.
The stage is set in Dallas, where we meet Chris Smith (Hirsch). He’s gotten into some trouble with a local crime boss, though I confess I don’t remember how exactly. Something to do with his mother and her coke dealer, if I recall. The point is that Chris needs $6,000 to pay off a debt or he’s a dead man. Kicked out of his mother’s house and with nowhere else to run, Chris goes to his dad.
Ansel Smith (Church) is your basic redneck with absolutely nothing of any substance between his ears. He’s married to Sharla (Gershon), a much more spiteful, vain, and lazy variety of white trash. It should be little surprise to learn that these two barely have enough money for themselves, much less six grand to spare for Chris. Now completely desperate, Chris comes up with a solution that everyone seems to like: Kill Chris’ mom and collect the insurance. Like you do.
Adele Smith (we never actually meet her in the film) has a life insurance policy of $50,000, and Chris has heard tell of a local hitman to get the job done right. The mother gets killed, they collect the insurance payout, they use it to pay the hitman, Chris pays his debts, and everyone gets a share of the remainder. It’s a good plan, but there are two initial difficulties.
The first difficulty is that the insurance plan’s sole beneficiary is Dottie (Temple), Chris’ little sister. She doesn’t have any love for her mother, and she seems perfectly okay with the whole plan, so it might sound like this isn’t a problem at all. But then the second difficulty comes in.
The eponymous Joe Cooper (McConaughey) is a corrupt detective with the Dallas Police who works as a hitman on the side. Being so intelligent and skilled at his work, Joe insists on a $25,000 fee up front. This naturally leads to an impasse until Joe proposes a compromise: He’ll do the job on condition that Chris and Ansel give him Dottie as retainer. So Chris begrudgingly whores out his sister to the hitman, and at this point, things haven’t even begun to get weird.
With all of that out of the way, let’s take a closer look at these characters. We may as well start with Chris, a character who is driven entirely by desperation. Chris is perpetually caught between fear for his own life and fear for his sister’s life. When he has to choose between one or the other, it makes for some great internal conflict and character drama. Additionally, since Chris has absolutely nothing to lose, of course he’s going to be stupid and reckless. Chris is going to go out swinging if he’s going to go out at all, and there’s something to be respected about that.
Furthermore, Chris is the only sane member of his family with any brains or balls to speak of, which makes him all the easier to like by comparison. The character constantly makes dumb decisions, but he’s still the smartest member in his family, and it’s not like the film is asking us to buy him as a role model or a genius. Quite the contrary, in fact. There are terrible consequences to his actions, and the problems he faces aren’t entirely his fault. In spite of the whole matricidal plot, the character is built in such a way that he’s easy to root for.
Next we have Dottie. She’s a young woman who’s clearly unwell in the head, but that’s not to say she’s dangerous. In fact, Dottie is easily the most harmless and innocent member of the cast. It’s not an easy thing to call her insane, especially in a cast like this. Indeed, Dottie may very well be the most rational person in the movie, which makes it all the more sad that her methods are buried in so much madness.
Dottie is so emotionally unstable and so unskilled at interpersonal communication that it’s hard to tell what she’s thinking, what she knows, or what she’ll do at any given time. Basically, imagine River Tam without the genius-level intellect or the ability to kick ass and you’re partway there. Some or all of this may have come about when her mom tried killing her, but that part is unclear. Moreover, given that we only have Dottie’s word to go on, who even knows if the murder attempt happened at all?
Also, I should point out that we never learn exactly what Dottie’s age is. It’s entirely possible — nay, probable — that she’s underage. If true, then the filmmakers should’ve just gone ahead and called it “The Aristocrats.”
This brings me to Killer Joe himself. It’s a fascinating thing to watch his relationship with Dottie, because it’s not immediately clear what he wants from her. Maybe it’s purely a sexual thing, or maybe he sees something in her that no one else does. Maybe it’s both, or possibly neither. There’s no way of knowing exactly what his intentions are or what he plans to do, until that terrible moment when we find out. In fact, that’s basically Joe in a nutshell.
It’s important to remember that Joe is a detective by trade, which automatically makes him smarter than the rest of the cast put together. Moreover, he’s providing a desperately needed service for which the Smiths promised him a small fortune, so he’s got them right in the palm of his hand. Joe is perfectly capable of manipulating the other characters, twisting them to his will with total ease, and there’s always the question of how he’ll use that power. Maybe he’ll have mercy on them and find some way to make everything work out, maybe he’ll drive them even deeper into the ground for his own benefit, or maybe he’ll do something else that’s totally unexpected.
This character is all over the map, yet there’s clearly a kind of logic to what he does. It’s very compelling to watch this character, asking the whole time if he’s a psychopath or a genius, to say nothing of how and when we’re going to find out.
I suppose I should also talk about Ansel, but there’s really no point. The character provides some comic relief, though his humor gets extremely dark toward the end. When Ansel finally realizes just how stupid and impotent he really is, the humor was such that I almost hated myself for laughing.
As for Sharla… I’ll put it to you this way: The first we ever see of Sharla is an eyeful of her vagina. Without getting into spoilers, that’s really all you need to know about the character.
Oh, there is a copious amount of nudity in this film. The exposed flesh is particularly heavy at the start of the film, with an extended strip club sequence following Sharla’s pube-heavy introduction. That isn’t even getting started on Juno Temple, who gets all kinds of naked throughout the picture. Even when she’s clothed, the camera takes great pleasure in lingering over Temple’s legs (remember, she’s playing a character who might be underage). Oh, and if you still need your fix of nude McConaughey after Magic Mike, don’t worry — the film’s got you covered there, too.
Aside from the nudity, there’s quite a bit of sex as well. And it’s all incredibly disturbing. There’s of course the Joe/Dottie scene, which should be squicky for self-evident reasons. The film also features some hardcore sexual photos that play a prominent role in the proceedings. Finally, there’s the climax, in one character commits rape without any actual sex or nudity. I didn’t even know that was possible, but here we are.
Of course, given the film’s premise, it should be obvious that this film should be very violent as well. Chris probably gets the worst of it at first, since Emile Hirsch goes through half the movie looking like he got run over by every bull in Pamplona. Of course, his beatings come before the third act, when things get so sickening that someone would need to call a fire engine just to wash all the blood away. And a second fire engine to deal with the car explosion.
There’s no denying that this movie gets very crazy and incredibly sleazy, yet there are so many reasons why this is more than just a Z-grade exploitation flick. For one thing, the actors are all phenomenal. In particular, McConaughey’s performance is absolutely golden. I still held some shred of doubt that McConaughey could play a compelling and nuanced character with charm and intelligence, but this film finally and completely made me a convert.
Additionally, Hirsch does a surprisingly good job of playing a redneck character with only two working brain cells to rub together while still making Chris relatively likable. Church was so convincing as an ignorant neanderthal that I’m worried he might have incurred permanent neurological damage to prepare for the role. Temple was also much better than I’ve come to expect from her, though it helped that her wide-eyed naivete was such a refreshing change of pace from the rest of the film. Gershon was of course the weak link of the cast, though she still knocked the climax out of the park.
Perhaps most importantly, all of these actors — everyone involved with this film, in fact — takes the material seriously. This film could easily have been a tasteless exploitation film, but the screenplay, the direction, and the actors all put in far more effort than the material probably deserves. The end result is a film that uses its sex and violence not just for titillation, but to show exactly how badly these characters are in over their heads and beyond saving. The end result is a cast of well-acted characters in increasingly desperate situations, when they were already unpredictable to begin with, in a film where no depraved act of retribution is off the table. There was no limit to how deeply this film was willing to go, and I personally wanted to see just how far the characters were going to dig.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie like Killer Joe before. All the ingredients are here for an exploitation film that shocks for the sake of it, with ample helpings of nudity and outrageous acts of sex and violence. Yet the talent on display turns the film into a unique character drama, with nuanced characters who were compelling to watch for how totally unpredictable, utterly desperate, and batshit crazy they all were. Ultimately, it all evens out to a film that’s part comedy, part drama, part tragedy, and black as pitch throughout.
If you have any stomach at all for mature content, I definitely recommend seeking this film out.