“I don’t know why we did that,” sighs Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) midway through William Friedkin’s Killer Joe(2012). “But it makes me mad.” Joe is talking about the history of the Texas-Oklahoma border, but those words could be said by any number of the unthinking and amorally violent characters in this strange, haunting and interesting movie about a family of dimwits who hire a killer to murder their matriarch so they can split up the insurance money. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s handsomely mounted by Friedkin and ultimately powered by McConaughey’s brilliant performance who, with Magic Mike (2012) already released, is using this year to change the trajectory of his career.
The movie shouldn’t work. It’s about a bunch of losers who aren’t even likable, but mean and dumb and cowardly. It’s about vicious and casual violence and slimy and degenerate sexuality. The movie doesn’t like these people but doesn’t make it easy to recognize that fact. Conventional movies about badness give us a normal character that we are meant to identify with. At the right times the movie will cut to this character reacting to the poor taste in shock and horror, allowing us to understand what the movie really thinks. Such a character doesn’t exist in Killer Joe, which is only peopled with slimeballs, dirtbags and fools.
In the middle of the night in the middle of the Texas dust, Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) bangs on the door of the trailer belonging to his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church). Chris has been kicked out of his mother’s home (Ansel and Chris’ mother are divorced; Ansel has remarried) and is in debt to gangsters. He needs a thousand dollars to keep the thugs at bay. Ansel hasn’t got it but Chris has a plan that will set them all up for good. He has it on reliable information that his mother’s life is insured for $50,000 and that the beneficiary is Chris’s dim but sweet sister Dottie (Juno Temple) and that there’s a Dallas cop who runs a side business murdering people for money. This is Killer Joe Cooper, Chris says, and if they give him 40% of the fifty grand to off his mother, the rest will be theirs. Ansel thinks about it for a second and then they go ahead like they’re hiring a professional to fix the plumbing.
And like a hot breeze, Joe Cooper comes into their lives. First, it turns out that his fee is $25,000, Chris got it wrong (this will become a theme), and he only takes payment upfront; he won’t wait for the insurance to pay out, no exceptions. This appears to be the end of the plot, but sickeningly Joe allows he will amend his no exceptions rule if he’s allowed to “have” Dottie as a retainer. McConaughey, who adds an extra oily undertone to his usual serpentine allure, is able to traverse this base material without getting too dirty himself. Unlike the dull-witted Smiths, he has a smoothness that makes the unseemly actions more palatable. True, he’s a murderer and sick for his suggestion about Dottie, but we can’t help but be drawn to him because in contrast to the Smiths, who seem to be struggling to keep all the balls in the air, he appears as if the suggestion that the balls might drop never occurred to him.
Chris and Ansel, who are brokering the deal, blink a few times at Joe’s proposal but then quickly agree. So if you’re keeping score, that’s a hit made on the life of a family member and another sold into prostitution all for $50,000, more than half of which is owed to Joe and other gangsters. I called them amoral before, but that’s not quite right. It’s not that they’re lacking morality, they have it, they just don’t understand it. That people like this exist makes me weep, that they can vote makes me shudder.
And I think that’s the feeling Killer Joe wants to elicit. Often in movies like this, it’s the murder that goes haywire, but here the deed is carried out without a hitch; it’s everything afterward that goes to Hell, leading to its gruesome final act, which concludes with the chilling suggestion that these people will be procreating. I was reminded of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and its suggestion that for all the ruthless destiny manifestors the book presents us with, it’s the slack-jawed Jim Bond, a bastard of a bastard, and his ilk who will conquer the world. If the Smiths are to inherit the earth, I feel bad for the meek who have to share it with them. Killer Joe isn’t a comedy, but there are times when the only response is to laugh as these poor souls do their best to undercut themselves and each other. It’s like Hitchcock as seen by John Waters.
A lot of the credit goes to William Friedkin, who keeps the movie from gravitating toward unwatchable schlock, which is where it belongs. Instead of being mired in the material, the direction rises above it, slyly distancing itself. I thought a lot about Almodóvar’s similarly fascinating (and similarly twisted) The Skin I Live In (2011), which also avoided being a celebration of its disturbing behavior without pulling any punches about how gruesome it is. This is no small trick, and even though Killer Joe wants us to laugh at some of the action, it never makes the violence funny, and while the Smiths carelessly enter into the savagery, the movie always reminds us how great the consequences of the unthinking brutality are and how pointless it all becomes.
There are two scenes that if handled differently would torpedo any chance of Killer Joe working, but Friedkin deftly maneuvers them both. The first is on Joe and Dottie’s “date.” Dottie possesses that Marilyn Monroe quality of being a wholly sexual being but not being aware of it, which Friedkin uses not to titillate but to disturb as Joe takes advantage of it. There’s a parental feeling the audience gets during this scene as this girl, whose own parents have effectively abandoned her, is about to be brought up by the world. In a sneaky visual gag, Friedkin has Joe ask Dottie to undress, and as she does, Joe takes out a pair of handcuffs which we immediately assume will be used in a devious way. Then Joe puts them on a counter, discarding them; he’s simply removing all of his police paraphernalia. The insertion of cuffs feels meaningful, so there’s a considerable amount of tension that melts away when we find out they won’t be used for the purpose we thought they would, and then we’re a little embarrassed we assumed that in the first place.
Friedkin will use a close-up on an inanimate object effectively again in the next important scene, this time on a leg of fried chicken. But it would take an audience member sicker than I to anticipate what it gets used for. This last scene shows Joe, after the deal has gone south, exacting his revenge and Friedkin’s tension-filled camera gets tighter as he puts the noose around his charges’ necks. It’s fascinating to watch McConaughey, who is simply doing a variation on his bravado persona but one that is dark and menacing.
Credit the screenplay by Tracy Letts for the power of this scene. The script is based on his play of the same name and there are times, especially early on, when the words have the unreality of the stage. This is a common ailment of play adaptations where the lines don’t have the feeling of spontaneity. Hirsch’s delivery is especially clunky and staid, and his character does the most theater-style speechifying. These are minor problems that aren’t enough to sink the risky Killer Joe which works in spite of itself.