Moviejay vs ‘Killer Joe’ ..And It’s Not Pretty.

Here is a vile and putrid film.

It is billed as a deep-fried dark comedy. Grand Guignol for rednecks. Double Indemnity for the Drowning Mona crowd.

I didn’t find myself laughing the way others were. I can accept a study in amorality and depravity (The War Zone and Tyrannosaur come to mind) and I can also accept it when it is funny (I’m thinking Happiness and Fargo). Those movies are good because they have the balls to confront their subject matter with perceptive human moments and humor built out of observation with the funnier two.

Killer Joe is a bucket of Kentucky Fried Fail because it lacks the courage to confront its own material. It stands above it, beneath it, beside it. A cynical cop-out of a movie that uses amorality and depravity instead for cheap effect; to titillate, to shock, to outrage, all in a desperate attempt to keep us interested in stupid characters that we’re meant to laugh at for how awful they all are.

The director, William Friedkin, made a couple of masterpieces 40 years ago with The French Connection and The Exorcist. Critics have written off his output since, but there are a few good ones in To Live and Die in L.A. with Willem Dafoe and CSI‘s William Petersen; the underrated chase picture The Hunted with Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro; as well as the schizophrenic thriller Bug with Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon.

Killer Joe reunites Friedkin with Bug screenwriter Tracy Letts in another of his stage adaptations, this one from the 1993 play of the same name. With Bug, they gathered uneasy tension that built to an intense climax. Here, they’re simply masturbating while a cast of good actors are left hanging.

The first one we meet on a stormy Texas night is Chris (Emile Hirsch). He’s a weasel and a degenerate, the kind of “friend” that if you were to lend him $40 and you never see him again, consider it money well spent. He comes knocking on his dad Ansel’s (Thomas Haden Church) trailer in the middle of the night. The dog is raging at Chris, but these characters are too stupid to heed the mutt’s warnings. The door opens to a reveal of his stepmom Sharla (Gina Gershon), a woman who tells us everything we need to know about her by what she isn’t wearing. Also in the trailer is his younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple), who is perceived as being slow even among rather slow people.

Chris needs quick cash. He’s in debt to people you wouldn’t want to know, let alone cross. What he proposes to his father is a plan to have mom killed in order to recoup her $50,000 insurance policy that would be handed down to Dottie. We never meet Chris’ mother but we’re assured that everyone hates her. What Ansel thinks about having his ex-wife killed I’m not sure, because anything resembling thinking is left off screen.

Enter hitman-for-hire and local police detective Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey). He needs $25,000 up front, which of course neither Chris nor Ansel can provide. They give him Dottie as a “retainer”. That leads to a sequence we behold with incredulity as the family is put through a sitcom spin-cycle. Who’s going to tell Dottie what they did to her and what is required of her? But then the characters hastily exit the picture, leaving us alone with Dottie and Killer Joe, who’s had her in his sights from the get-go.

I won’t give anything away here, except to report that their scene rings false. It is supposed to be an uncomfortable scene because it is essentially dealing with coercion and rape, but here come the filmmakers to wedge themselves in the middle of it because they’re too afraid of its dark implications. Listen carefully to the how and the what of Dottie’s reply to Killer Joe when he asks how old she is. That isn’t her real reply, just the filmmakers screwing with us. I didn’t buy her newly acquired sexual intelligence just as I couldn’t accept the incestuous implications between her and Chris earlier in the movie because that wasn’t anything more than Friedkin and Letts inserting themselves needlessly into the story instead of simply letting us get to know these people on their own terms. They go for diversionary tactics instead of playing it straight.

How this all plays out depends entirely upon events that happen off screen, including the revelation that Killer Joe has gotten the job done, and that the insurance policy is not left to Dottie, but to Rex, the ex-wife’s new husband who we only see for a couple of seconds, just before he is about to enter a cheap motel room with Sharla of all people. That is just the set-up for the climax of the picture, which sees Killer Joe, Chris, Dottie, Ansel and Sharla together in the trailer, which is obviously a double-wide since they all fit into it rather comfortably.

Other critics have been all too happy to give it away, but let me just say that this infamous scene will forever be known as the “chicken drumstick scene”, yet another example of a situation that was hard for me to buy into because of everything we’ve come to know about Gina Gershon as an actress. Watching her here reminded me of Isabella Rossellini’s work in Blue Velvet, where an actress risks everything for a movie that is far, far beneath her. Just like Thomas Haden Church’s character, we’re never allowed inside Ansel or Sharla. If they think or calculate or have any plans whatsoever, this happens off screen. If Sharla is the femme fatale, we’re not even sure if she knows it. Ansel is clueless; he’s what happens if you enter your 40’s and you’ve got no imagination and are a pothead.

McConaughey is lithe and oily here with that soft-spoken lilt he brings to his drawl, a psychopath who gets turned on through the exercise of his own ego. If he had words inked onto his knuckles they wouldn’t be “LOVE” and “HATE”, but more like “MARY” and “MARY”, perhaps.

In interviews about the film, Friedkin comes off like an infant who is elated at showing mommy his first poopoo in the potty. “You’re not supposed to ‘enjoy’ this movie”, he says.

Well, he’ll be glad to know that I didn’t.

Killer Joe makes me appreciate Tarantino, the Coens, and Todd Solondz even more. They bring life and fascination to their work while making it look easy. They were doing this stuff and doing it better 15 years ago. Friedkin’s got the notes, but he’s bankrupt of anything resembling music here.


*½ (out of 4)