Killer Joe

WFTB Score: 14/20

The plot: Needing cash desperately to stave off his callous creditor, witless Chris Smith teams up with the rest of his family in a plot to murder his poor, unloved mother for her life assurance policy. To do the deed, they enlist the services of a corrupt cop nicknamed ‘Killer Joe’. The trouble is, they don’t have the money to pay Joe up front, and their only collateral is Chris’ innocent sister Dottie.

Judging by the jokes, there’s apparently no shortage of dumb Texans. Even so, you’d have to go some to find one dumber than Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), who’s managed to get himself $6,000 in debt with no way of repaying it. With his deadbeat father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) in no position to help, Chris hits on a drastic plan B: get his no-good mother killed so blameless sister Dottie (Juno Temple) can cash in and share out the $50,000 from the insurance policy. He’s even got an assassin lined up in crooked cop ‘Killer’ Joe (Matthew McConaughey), but there’s a snag; Joe won’t lift a finger until he gets his $25,000. On the other hand, Dottie is a sweet little thing…

I don’t wish to advertise the particular video streaming service I saw Killer Joe on – let’s just say it’s handy if you love film – but I have to admire their chutzpah in including the movie in their ‘comedy’ section. There is comedy in the film, mostly in the lazy, brainless lump that is Ansel and specifically in a moment of clothing-based comic timing; but in general, Killer Joe‘s view of life makes even the Coen brothers’ bleakest outings look like a Farrelly brothers romp. A more accurate description would be that the film follows the form of a morality play, showing the very serious consequences that follow when very stupid, very greedy people decide to dance with the devil.

And what a devil Joe is. His evil is overwhelming, though unquestionably charismatic, and to be fair the Smiths invite him in, though they can have little idea of the havoc he’ll wreak in their trailer. Joe’s evil is set against Dottie’s other-worldly – if not entirely innocent – nature, with Chris caught between his pathetic vices and a real concern for his sister’s welfare. Crucially, Tracy Letts’ writing always brings out the human drama of the characters’ interactions – for example, Dottie telling Joe “Your eyes hurt” or recounting the story of her mother’s, um, poor parenting skills. Veteran director Friedkin also plays his part, keeping most of the scenes tight and enclosed, retaining the intensity of Letts’ stage play as the plot unfolds and events turn from gritty and noirish to nightmarishly disturbing in its level of violence and weird depravity. If you’re at all squeamish, especially where food is concerned, you might want to give this one a miss.

If you were to do so, however, you’d be missing out on some fantastic performances. McConaughey’s is the most immediately impressive, powerfully transmitting Joe’s disregard for others through his commands and violent outbursts; Haden Church brings nuances of fear and cowardice to Ansel’s lazy acquiescence and Gershon is superb, Sharla never asking for our sympathy even as the actress suffers horribly for her art.

If anything, though, the real surprises come from the younger actors: Hirsch is terrific as the utterly useless Chris, completely unrecognisable from the wet blanket of The Girl Next Door; and Juno Temple beautifully brings across Dottie’s beautiful otherness. She submits to her ordeal but is never simply a victim of abuse; and you would never, ever guess that she’s an English rather than a Texan rose. And – brilliantly – she gets to tease us with the ambiguity of the film’s closing seconds, allowing us to come away with the ending we want.

However, it’s in the treatment of Dottie that Killer Joe’s issues are, as it were, exposed. There’s an uncomfortable and threatening, yet deliberately alluring, sensuality to Dottie’s seduction which feels exploitative; and the feeling isn’t limited to the way Temple is dressed or undressed, or how Sharla (or anyone else, for that matter) is mistreated (I won’t go into more detail, so as not to spoil the surprise!) at the film’s tumultuous climax. Having been unhappy about the way Charles Napier’s sadistic cop dispatched poor Angel in Supervixens, it would be hypocritical to give Friedkin’s film a free ride just because its focus is not so keenly on bosoms.

Actually, neither the sex nor the violence are problematic in and of themselves; it’s just that one way or another, they recall so many other films: movies by Meyer, Tarantino and the aforementioned Coens, A Clockwork Orange, American Psycho. It’s true, of course, that Letts’ play precedes many of these works, but Friedkin’s fine-looking film has to live in some very long shadows – and for all its shock value, lacks the long-lasting impact of many of those films.

Still, it’s good to know that confrontational, well-written films like Killer Joe are made and distributed, and that Friedkin is still able to bring his talents to bear, in the light of almost complete imaginative bankruptcy from mainstream Hollywood (look at 2011’s top 10 grossing films to see what I mean). It’s not exactly a barrel of laughs, or even what you’d call enjoyable, but some incendiary performances and a marvellous control of tension and atmosphere make for a very watchable film.

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