What do you get when you stir in the screwball characters of a Coen Brothers’ from a film like Raising Arizona or Burn After Reading, add a dash of plotting from Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, and mix it with a little David Lynch suburbia? You get a hot cup of Killer Joe, compliments of director William Friedkin and writer Tracy Letts (adapted from Letts’ stage play from the early nineties).
The movie starts off as if it were a film noir set in a Texas trailer park; raining heavily outside, dim lighting with a neon glow hitting the camera lens. Next enters a frantic Emile Hirsch who plays Chris Smith, a low life drug dealer who owes quite a bit of money to some local gangsters. He’s come up with a plan to make $50,000 by having his mother murdered by a profession and then he’ll collect the life insurance. To do this he needs a partner. He goes to the one person he can trust and this is his simple minded father Ansel, played by a dead pan Thomas Haden Church.
When Chris first arrives at his father’s trailer he’s not admitted despite banging and shouting on the door for his sister Dottie (Juno Temple) to open up. Eventually he’s greeted by his stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) and her hairy bush! This is the first time you get a sense of just how the interactions between characters will work out. In this case, it’s like a dysfunctional Jerry Springer sitcom with Hirsch and Gershon having a shouting match over, of course, the lack of clothing when greeting visitors at the door. Hirsch now sets up the plot by explaining the plan to kill his mother. They decide on hit man and also detective, Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). A meeting with Joe is scheduled at their trailer. This is where Joe first meets Dottie and he develops a very strange infatuation with her. The three plotters later meet up at a pool hall to go over the details and fees of the plan to kill the mother. At one point Joe aborts the mission over insufficient funds but has a quick change of heart when he sees Dottie playing outside by his car. It’s a very David Lynch like moment in soft focus on an angelic Juno Temple, supported with daydream-like music playing in the background. Joe requests Dottie as a retainer instead of his usual fee upfront and after a bit of a debate they agree and Dottie is coaxed into spending an evening with the executioner come detective.
As the story moves along we learn a little bit more about Emile Hirsch’s problems with gambling continually betting on another losing horse. His luck goes south when he runs into Digger Soames (Marc Macaulay), a man he to whom he owes a large sum of money. The chase is on as Hirsch runs for his life hunted down by two large bikers, who kick the shit out of him – just as a warning. As an actor, Emile Hirsch, takes a lot of physical and mental punishment during the making of this film and he’s 100% committed. The effects make up for Killer Joe is extremely gruesome especially after Hirsch’s run-in. This foreshadows future events in the story.
Joe completes his job with a reluctant Chris as a witness. All that is left to do is collect the money and part ways, as is the case with all film noirs. In this film that’s not quite the situation. Remaining are several twists like who told Hirsch’s character about the life insurance policy and Juno Temple’s decision not to leave with Emile Hirsch to Mexico. The plot thickens.
The last fifteen minutes of the film is really what will set it apart from all postmodern film noirs. It’s also the most stage-like sequence in the movie. Matthew McConaughey interrogates Gina Gershon about the insurance policy after the murdered mother’s funeral. Being the master manipulator, he slowly recruits Thomas Haden Church over to his side (not a difficult task to perform). Imagine McConaughey’s character from The Lincoln Lawyer but more lethal and ready to strike. As this is going on the three of them are about to sit down to a dinner of KFC, or as it’s called in the film KFriedC. Gershon’s character sets aside a leg for McConaughey. They begin a conversation. McConaughey breaks her nose. Then to completely humiliate her, he props the chicken leg on his crotch and makes her suck it (So Good)! The scene is very unsettling. Next Hirsch comes to rescue Temple from the clutches of McConaughey only to find this bizarre family meal in progress. McConaughey snaps and smashes Hirsch’s face in with a can of beans, all with the assistance of both Haden Church and Gershon. One of the best lines comes from Haden Church as he turns on his only son, “I’ve got his legs Joe!” In the midst of this madness Temple shoots Hirsch and wounds Haden Church, revealing she’s pregnant. The film goes to a final close up of the gun and cuts to credits with Clarence Carter’s “Strokin'” playing in the background.
End of Spoiler
This isn’t a comeback film for William Friedkin by any stretch and it takes time for the audience to adjust to the tone. If anything it illustrates that Friedkin is still a filmmaker unafraid of taking risks. His day was in the seventies but he obviously has ability and passion still yearning to get out. It’s a much better film than Bug minus Michael Shannon. Killer Joe comes into its own during act three. Things get goofy and the real fun begins. An example of this is when Haden Church and Gershon are talking to a lawyer. Gershon pulls a thread from Church’s sleeve and it falls off completely. There are two scenes I can guarantee audiences will walk out: the sequence where Hirsh is dreaming about Temple stripping; and during one of the creepiest sex scenes in recent cinema, involving McConaughey and Temple pretending to be twelve years old.
The performances are all over the top. Emile Hirsch can be a good actor (Into the Wild) but he is very animated when confronting his father and stepmother but can also be very manipulative when talking to Temple or McConaughey. I’d say the most daring work emanates from Matthew McConaughey; a cold blooded professional moonlighting assassin who starts to fall apart when he meets Temple. There are things that this actor does you just won’t believe until you see it with your own eyes. Even if you’re not a fan of his you will respect this more unconventional choice of weird material, especially for a Hollywood celebrity. Thomas Haden Church has some funny moments and plays it very deadpan, similar to his other roles but only a little more dimwitted than usual. Juno Temple gives a performance that’s almost outside of this movie. She plays it more introverted and quieter than the rest of the exaggerated redneck gang.
Another interesting choice was to use Caleb Deschanel as cinematographer. It’s a very ugly looking film shot on digital, resembling a missing Rob Zombie film. This is one of the more uncomfortable aspects of the film even though intentional. It looks cheaply made.
As a final point, Killer Joe is based on Tracy Letts’ play (also responsible for adapting Bug for Friedkin). Essentially this odd piece feels like a genre film until the last act where it transforms into a strange courtroom drama in a trailer park. I would be interested to see the original source material and compare the two. Killer Joe is definitely an acquired taste, kind of like KFC. If you go into the film looking for a fun midnight genre flick you will not be disappointed.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars