Killer Joe Review: Matthew McConaughey's Creepiness Finds a Fitting Home
Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a mealy mouthed and violently angry young man who hatches a scheme to kill his mother for her $50,000 insurancepolicy. He’s eager to clear up a few debts, as well as rid him of a woman who matters little to him, and so gets his dullard father (Thomas Haden Church) to agree to the plan. The decision is made to hire a trained killer, a police detective named Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). Chris’ young sister Dottie (Juno Temple) will be the beneficiary, and his unconcerned father and hell-cat step-mother (Gina Gershon) will split the money with Chris, after they pay Cooper.
Teenage Dottie is coltish and delicate, babbling sincerities and truths one moment and nonsense the next, unaware that her body has betrayed her as a woman before her mind has agreed to mature. Since they can’t afford to pay anything up front, Joe demands that he be given Dottie as a retainer. The family feigns frustration but Dottie is given up easily, her virtue being a nominal sacrifice for the greater payoff. As Chris begins to sink further into debt, his anxiousness grows and Joe’s casual attitude towards the potential murder weighs heavier on him. Things become more ever more complicated and violent as time goes on, and the final scenes are the hook upon which everything hangs, a revealing confrontation that feels as devastating as it is ultimate.
Director William Friedkin previously collaborated with playwright Tracy Letts on Bug, another intense character drama set in the squalor of the South. Killer Joe was written as a play in the early ’90s, and it’s clear that Letts has no particular love for any of his characters, who are often unintelligent and dully aware of the boundaries of their small world, centered in Dallas, Texas. At one point when Chris is asking his father for a thousand dollars, his father numbly replied that he’s never had a thousand dollars in his whole life. These are people who simply know that they exist, but can’t exactly divine any particular reason for doing so. Violence and disappointment are a constant, and so there is work, there is alcohol and there are other people to be barely tolerated.
Killer Joe is a dark comedy, and Letts’ characters are extremely funny at times. For instance, when Gershon’s character answers the door with no pants on, sporting a wild ’70s style bush, Chris curses and pushes past her, asking her why she’d answer the door like that. She replies, calmly affronted, that she didn’t know who it was. It’s clear that we’re meant to laugh at their simple desperation and arcane speech, and there’s a hint of the theatrical left over from the origins of the story. Friedkin has a good eye not only for the comedy, but also for the details of this poverty enmeshed lifestyle, from the who-gives-a-shit dumpiness of the trailer to the details of Dottie’s childlike room, replete with pictures of Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift. The cinematography, by Caleb Deschanel, and editing, by Darrin Navarro, is beautiful and non-intrusive. The score, by Tyler Bates, vibrates and hums with tension and electricity.
However it is the performances that drive the drama, and Friedkin has chosen his cast well. Matthew McConaughey’s inherent creepiness finally finds a fitting home, and he excels in the role of Joe Cooper, the killer. His power and absolute command of the situation is as unrelenting, and Joe would appear to be the angel of death himself, unwavering, untouchable, and uninterested in nuance. His seduction of Dottie isn’t quite gentle, but her innocence and honesty keeps her from harm. The vitriolic family unit is remarkable, from Hirsch’s snarling bastard behavior to Church’s remarkably complacent father, to Gershon’s mouthy bitch-face. All of the women in this film fare poorly, subject to the whims and plans of the men around them, and Juno Temple’s performance is perhaps the bravest, as she not only bares her body entirely, but must somehow remain virtuous despite the best efforts of everyone around her to corrupt and defile.
I feel I should make mention of an instance of sexual humiliation that is hard to describe without, well, “spoiling” anything. I will say that everyone in the theater laughed during the encounter, in much the same way I’ve sat and listened to an entire audience laugh during the rape scene in Blue Velvet. On the one hand, the situation was vaguely funny but the intended consequences of the actions was to instill fear, to humiliate and to denigrate. As soon as it started happening, I felt sick. Not because I can’t handle extreme violence or obscene sexuality, but because I knew I’d have to say something about it in this review. I still don’t understand how a room full of adults can laugh as they watch a woman be brutalized. Yes, it’s on-screen, yes, it’s not real, yes, it furthers the story. It’s still hard to watch, hard to see a way of life in which these brutalities are accepted or perpetuated. Friedkin seems to treat the occasion as justice being served, but in any case, an occasion for comedy it is not.
This one’s rated NC-17 and the brutality and sexuality warrant it. It’s worth seeing, especially if you’re a fan of anyone involved as the film is powerful. It’s also hard to watch at times, and feels just a bit too long although the pacing is excellent. The horror here is only slightly different than the horror Friedkin made his name on, as Killer Joe explores the depths of depravity inside desperate people, and the power that exists all around us that is simply there for the taking.
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