Don’t mess with this Texan!
The H-Bomb: Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is a twenty-something, trailer trash drug dealer with a gambling problem and an overdue debt to some nasty, nasty folks. To climb out of this hole, he comes up with the worst idea possible; to kill his alcoholic bitch of a mother in order to collect $50,000 life insurance that will be paid to his teenage sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). Since he doesn’t want to get his own hands dirty, he decides to hire someone he heard about through the grapevine, Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a professional killer.
A low key, soft spoken fellow, dressed all in black, from his boots to his cowboy hat, “Killer” Joe may carry a badge, but he sure as shit ain’t the damn good guy. He’s a stone cold sociopath who will grease anyone for the right price. That price is $25,000, which he demands in advance. Chris, of course, doesn’t have that kind of money, so Joe suggests, as an alternative, that Chris give him a retainer . . . his little sister Dottie, who Joe has met and taken a very unsavory interest in.
Chris isn’t too big on this idea, but he sees no alternative. So, after discussing it with his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), and his slutty stepmother, Sharla (Gina Gershon), who are also in on the plan, he agrees to take Joe up on this compromise. Thing is, Joe is a consummate professional, and when he does a job, he expects to be paid in full. So, should something go wrong with, say, the payout of the insurance money, Joe will see no choice but to just hang on to his “retainer” for good.
Oh Texas, the good ole’ Lone Star State . . . what the fuck is wrong with you? How is it you never run out of creeps, crooks, and homicidal slime balls to fill nasty little freak shows like Killer Joe? If films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men, The Killer Inside Me, and now this one, are to be believed, then the entire state is populated by nothing but scuzz buckets who are blissfully amoral at best and stark raving psychotic at worst. People willing to have their own mothers bumped off, and loan their kid sisters to sex predators, if they deem it necessary. A feel good, life affirming movie this isn’t.
But, there’s no law that says a movie has to be feel good in order to be good, and Killer Joe, directed by the mostly great William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection), from a script by Tracy Letts (the two previously collaborated on Bug), is one hunk of a good movie . . . one that I can’t exactly recommend, at least not to the masses, in general. The MPAA slapped it with the dreaded NC-17 rating, and having seen it, I can say in no uncertain terms that the film earned it. I mean, we get treated to a nice look of Gina Gershon’s bush before we even see her face, and the young Miss Temple is called upon to don her birthday suit more than a couple of times.
It’s not merely the frank nudity, though, that gives the film its “Box Office Poison” rating, that actually, had more to do with its more sexually disturbing sequences, such as Joe’s first date with Dottie, as well as when a character is called upon to give a blow job to a chicken leg . . . a scene that’s as intense as it is just fucking bizarre. There’s also the violence to take into account, which doesn’t hit until towards the end, but when it does hit, it hits hard enough to knock even the most desensitized amongst us for a loop. It’s about on par with the vicious beatings doled out in The Killer Inside Me (which this reminded me of quite a bit), and those who couldn’t stomach that should probably take a pass on this, as Friedkin holds absolutely nothing back.
Now, moving on to the performances, being that all of our leads are detestably unscrupulous cretins who partake in some horrifically dastardly deeds, Friedkin had his work cut out for him when casting this picture. In order for the audience to give a shit about these people, he really needed to find the right actors, ones who really bring out what little humanity exists in these dirt bags, and that he did. Hirsch plays the dense headed Chris with a strong sense of desperation, so even though we don’t always like what he’s doing, we do understand why he’s doing it. He’s far, far from being sympathetic, but he is, to an extent, empathetic.
Church’s droll humor as Chris’s perpetually drunk and often bewildered dad does lighten things up a bit, making the grim festivities a little (and I mean a little) easier to take. Gershon is given the best role she’s had in years and is utterly entertaining as the opportunistic, uber-bitchy step mom, and Temple plays Dottie with a child-like innocence and vulnerability that makes her the sole sympathetic individual in the piece. She is most definitely a young actress on the rise, and the shit her character has to endure is as heartbreaking as it is sickening to think about.
The true star of the show, and the real reason to see it, is McConaughey as Killer Joe. Stalking through the film like the Grim Reaper with a cowboy hat, he owns this movie! He is its black, twisted soul. His every line delivery, his every look and gesture just exudes menace and evil under his calm, collected façade. Pure fucking evil. Even the vicious pit bull who resides outside the Smith’s trailer knows better that to fuck with this hombre. This is McConaughey’s best performance ever. That‘s not even a matter of opinion, it just is! I defy anyone who would say otherwise to name one performance of his that comes even close to this one. In a just world, he would be receiving some serious consideration this award season . . . probably won’t happen, but it should.
As for reasons to not see Killer Joe, the sadistic violence, the sex, the chicken leg blowing, and the overall nihilistic tone aside, are there any? Well, it is based on a stage play, so the film favors dialogue over action, with scene after scene of characters conversing that often go for several minutes at a time. I personally had no issue with this, but others less patient than me will no doubt get bored in places, as it doesn’t exactly skip along at a brisk pace.
But whatever the reasons may be, I imagine that Killer Joe is a movie that will leave many, maybe most, audiences feeling like shit and hating it with a burning passion, while others just won’t know what the hell to make of it. The only reaction I would bet on with certainty, is that everyone who sees it will be disturbed to one degree or another. Whatever your reaction is, there is little doubt that this savagely provocative Neo Noir will remain in your head long after the credits roll, with some beautifully bloody images that will be burned into your brain forever. All I have left to say is, if you do choose to see it, you do so at your own risk.