As the final scene cut to black and the end credits appeared, accompanied by the ridiculous “Strokin'” by Clarence Carter, Killer Joe made me laugh harder than anything I saw last year, which is quite an accomplishment given that a more reasonable (not to mention easily defensible) response to its most over-the-top moments would be to recoil in disgust. If the film didn’t read in part as a knowing and deliberate parody of the literature of the American poverty belt — think of it as a demented three-way involving Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, and Jim Thompson — I’d likely find it psychotic.
Shot in Louisiana but set in Texas, Killer Joe is the story of people who aren’t as smart as they think they are — nobody but Joe himself (Matthew McConaughey), a cop who moonlights as a ruthlessly efficient contract killer, lives up to his billing. The film starts from a familiar premise — a kid, Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), who gets in over his head with some very mean men hatches a selfish and nefarious scheme to pay off his debts. In this case, it’s a plan to hire “Killer” Joe Cooper to murder his estranged mother, then collect on her life insurance policy. It’s a Smith family affair — Chris’s father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) and virginal sister Dottie (Juno Temple) eventually buy into the idea, expecting to split their net gain four ways. But when Chris is unable to pay the fee up front, Joe announces that he’ll hold Dottie as collateral. This development seems a little more nettlesome but eventually Chris and Ansel seem OK with it, too. When plans unravel, as they do in stories like this, it’s not just Dottie’s fate that hangs in the balance.
William Friedkin directs the screenplay by Tracey Letts, who wrote the original stage play on which this is based (I saw it back in 1999 in an off-Broadway theater so small that I got splashed when the table flipped over), with no small amount of gusto. He doesn’t bother calibrating the Letts approach to make the film Academy-friendly or anything like that, opting to have Gershon appear on screen bottomless, and in close-up, in the film’s first scene. On the audio commentary track Friedkin recorded for home video, he declares over and over again his astonishment at the idea that Killer Joe earned an NC-17 from the MPAA ratings board. I’m not sure if he’s being disingenous as a sort of defensive mechanism against the industry group’s seal of disapproval or if he is under a genuine misapprehension about the ways mainstream audiences react to this kind of material.
Not to spoil anything, but there exists within Killer Joe a scene of such sexual sadism that it amplifies the film’s burlesque on cliches and canards about the American South to a point of obvious, ahem, climax. That said scene involves a sex act simulated with a piece of deep-fried fast food identified by both brand and logo increases the absurdity and thus tickled me further. The scene, in which the titular character seeks to abjectly humiliate the scheming shrew who sought to outwit him—Gershon’s demeanor in the scene moves swiftly and unmistakably from dismissive to unbelieving to outright horrified—is flat-out disgusting in its misogyny, yes, which makes its black humor more legitimately transgressive.
The film’s final moments compare the twisted couple of Dottie and Joe to the Smith family, now a bombed-out shell and guilty, after all, of inviting this sexual vampire to cross the threshhold of their trailer and walk among them. While the joke is both smug and at their expense, I’m not sure it’s pernicious in intent. Rather, it’s a warning. Impeccably dressed, faultlessly polite, and possessed of a mean streak like the San Andreas fault, Joe Cooper turns out to be a genuinely scary character, roaring to life in a creature feature where the monster is something it really does behoove you to be afraid of.