Presented by the Director himself, William Friedkin, Killer Joe played to a full house on the second night of the Los Angeles Film Festival 2012 and the entire room was laughing out loud, enjoying every minute of this dark and twisted tale. As Friedkin puts it, “It’s a comedy by the way, you must not freak out.”
Killer Joe begins with the sound of thunder. The shots that follow emphasize the natural elements of this Texas city–the torrential rain, desolate gas stations and abandoned roller coasters, lightning and thunder aplenty, and the trailer park. In this hellish storm we meet degenerate Chris (Emile Hirsch) banging and screaming against his family’s double-wide trailer to be let in while a pit bull barks incessantly on its chain. The door opens to a complete shock, with Chris’ stepmother Sharla’s unruly pubic hair flashed for all to see. While this startles and annoys Chris, as he begs her to put clothes on, she is unfazed by walking around half-naked in front of her stepson. Just as common seems to be the way everyone yells at one another–the term “trailer trash” could not fit a family better. Chris’ father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) soon makes his appearance, groggy and slow in the middle of the night. Rounding out the family is Dottie (Juno Temple), the younger sister of Chris who is a simple girl, pure and innocent, with a mind that is tormented, finding solace in fanciful acts. Chris has been thrown out of the house by his mother and everyone in the trailer assumes he hit her again, the repetition of this one line coming from different characters secures the low-life nature of Chris for the viewer and his acceptance of violence.
The violent nature of Chris develops the motive for the family: Chris and Dottie’s mother has a $50,000 life insurance policy and the beneficiary is Dottie. They hire a detective that moonlights as a hired gun, Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), to kill her and then they collect the money so all of their problems will be solved. Primarily Chris’ problems being those in need of solving as he owes $6,000 dollars to the local loan shark. The set-up is very noir, and the tightness of the story as well. The majority of the action takes place within the family and with Joe, other characters are mentioned and motivate actions, but are never seen on screen. The action comes from within and with time Joe becomes part of the family, while the reasoning may not be in the best interests of those involved. Director William Friedkin knew what he was doing when he chose to adapt the stage play into a film and “Killer Joe” playwright Tracy Letts wrote the screenplay as well. Everything is pieced together perfectly, the characters shot in medium close-ups to emphasize their emotion and just as easily in a wide to give the viewer an outsider angle. For certain shots you are welcome in, others a mere voyeur experiencing the action from the outside. Every camera movement and edit feels intentional; Friedkin and his editor Darrin Navarro knew the way the story should be seen from the outsiders perspective and it works so well to keep you in the moment. Friedkin knows how to build tension and manipulate the viewer’s emotions, to the point at times that you do not recognize the response you are having. His work with Killer Joe exemplifies this skill, and takes it beyond the limits set previously by a Friedkin picture.
Killer Joe would not be such a disturbing and wickedly funny film if it were not for the performances of the entire cast. Special mention has to go to Matthew McConaughey as Joe. For years he has been playing in rom-com’s or dramas that do not require him to get deep and a little dirty with a character. In Killer Joe he exceeds any prior performance to create a character in Joe that is frightening and sympathetic, a masochist who desires to be loved, and a man of violence who can break your nose one minute and then sit you down for dinner the next. Gina Gershon’s stepmother Sharla is spot-on with the bitchy self she is made out to be. As things go in noir, those who deserve punishment will get what is coming to them–in Sharla’s case it involves an incredibly demeaning, disgusting display of perverse power–it will disturb you as much as it enthralls. The performance will also help you remember what a great actress Gina Gershon is, and always has been. Emile Hirsch delivers as the degenerate son who thinks he is making the right choices only to realize he has caused trouble he cannot undo. As for Thomas Haden Church, he nails every bit of dry humor by playing at the not-so-bright oblivious to everything husband/father. Then there is Juno Temple, her Dottie will claim your heart the first time she smiles. She will also break it when her body is used as a product to be sold.
There are no simple characters in Killer Joe, or easily broken down themes. You could call the film masochistic, or condemn it for its treatment of women. You may hate the violence and blood that permeates the entire movie, or the nudity as well. There are scenes where as a women it is hard to watch, yet Friedkin handles them in a manner of taste. Creating taste in a situation where taste should not be able to exist takes incredible skill as a director, and William Friedkin has always had skill. The finale of the film leaves you speechless, and so wrought with anxiety and terror you want to look away but cannot. Overall Killer Joe is a dark comedy dream come true, with noir influences, a tight-succession of action, and a story that will twist, turn, and leave you speechless at the end–and then smiling on your way out.
Director: William Friedkin
Writer: Tracy Letts
Producers: Nicolas Chartier, Scott Einbinder
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon