Before any critical assessment of William Friedkin’s new film “Killer Joe,” one must decide what it is. Not that you can’t figure out the influences in this story adapted by Tony Award-winner Tracy Letts from his own 1993 play.
The story clearly derives from the crime fiction of a bygone era — James M. Cain and Erskine Caldwell certainly and more recently Jim Thompson and perhaps Elmore Leonard — where whores, cops, killers and rednecks all finish in a dead heat in a race to the bottom of moral depravity.
In more recent cinema, you can cite, as the film’s press notes do, Quentin Tarantino and Tennessee Williams. I’m less certain about those influences although undeniably they exist in the trailer-park milieu and Southern Gothic expressionism through which Letts filters his extreme tale.
One finally resorts to “black comedy” as a label although you may not laugh as much as you did with Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.” And the black is so black here as to overwhelm the material. Friedkin himself calls “Killer Joe” a “twisted Cinderella story,” and that may have to suffice.
The reason I dwell so long on this “what” aspect to “Killer Joe” is that you’re never quite certain what rules the story plays by. You search in vain for any moral high ground. Every character save one begins the story as crude, stupid or amoral and only later do you learn how truly despicable they all are.
That one exception is young naïf Dottie, played by Juno Temple, whose mother’s attempt to strangle her as an infant resulted in enough brain damage to make her simple and therefore apparently incapable of true evil.
Otherwise her family has the market in evil cornered in whatever armpit of a Texas town they live in. Her brother Chris (Emile Hirsch) deals drugs and owes more money than he has to a local drug boss.
So he talks his clueless dad, auto mechanic Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), into hiring a hit man to take out his mother (and his dad’s ex) to collect on a life insurance policy with Dottie as the beneficiary. His dad’s waitress-wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) thinks this is an okay idea but is more interested in conducting cheap motel-room affairs.
Then comes the hit man from hell — Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a stone-cold killer. He demands $25,000 up front but then takes a look at jailbait Dottie, who never wears much clothes. He decides he’ll make a one-time exception by taking the girl as a “retainer.”
The family’s reaction to this indecent proposal: “It might do her some good.”
Apparently it does for Joe’s kinky sexual proclivities fit in perfectly with Dottie’s natural instincts, and as the princess in this twisted fairy tale she knows a white knight need not be white.
Things go downhill from here. First Chris and then Sharla get terrific beatings, Ansel learns he’s even a bigger fool than he or anyone else ever thought and Killer Joe (modeled somewhat after Jim Thompson’s protagonist in the unthinkably dark “The Killer Inside Me”) acts as if no matter what he does or whom he attacks no one on the Dallas police force will go after him.
Sometimes the film’s theatrical underpinnings show. Scenes take their sweet time playing out in the busted-up trailer the family inhabits on the outskirts of town. There are strange monologues and slow-to-catch-fire scenes that work against the rhythms of the film.
However, veteran DP Caleb Deschanel manages to establish dynamic visuals within the tight quarters of the motor home while editor Darrin Navarro urges the drama on toward its fearsome climax.
This is really an actors’ piece with intense characters and overwrought dialogue that everyone tears into with a passion. FIlm actors rarely get such meaty scenes so everyone wants to take advantage of these outsized characters who wear their dysfunction on their sleeves.
McConaughey has already had one role he was born to play this year in “Magic Mike.” With Killer Joe he gets a second. McConaughey slips into this dark, creepy character with lubricated ease.
His is the only person with a smooth, softly spoken exterior to mask his evil intent. He comes without psychology or back story; he is simply a force of Old Testament retribution.
Gina Gershon too has a character to which her career has pointed her. A slut with a heart of fool’s gold, Sharla lurks around the edges of the film until her big scene, going up against Killer Joe, in which her true malevolence comes out. And you’ll never regard a fried chicken drumstick the same way after seeing what Joe makes Gershon do with one.
Temple (at right), who seems to have staked her career on sex-kitten roles so far, finds just the right note of virginal lust to add ambivalence to her character’s gradual shift of allegiance from family to attractive foe.
As father and son, Church and Hirsch have a fine ol’ time playing dumb rednecks albeit of different orders. Hirsch’s kid probably would like to do the right thing if only he had the brains and upbringing to know what that was. He is hugely protective of his sister but this doesn’t stop him from pimping her to Killer Joe.
Church has a great line late in the film where he says, “I’m never aware.” That about sums it up: He lives a completely unexamined life, unconscious of anything happening around him. Somehow Church almost makes him endearing.
If anything, Friedkin — who puts Letts’ name above the title along with his own — keeps toning things down like a fireman stomping smoldering embers that persist in bursting into flames. Without his sure touch, “Killer Joe” would have spun out of control in the first act.
There is truly never a dull moment but that’s not the same thing as good moments. You don’t for a minute think you’re supposed to take any of this seriously. On the other hand, what is anyone supposed to make of it especially the splatter fest at its conclusion?
As that list of authorial ingredients above suggests, all this has been done before with varying degrees of earnestness and melodrama. Only nowadays, with gun violence, scorn for human life and intolerance at all time highs, such villainy gets played for laughs. Is that perhaps the moral?
With characters who are mostly childish,”Killer Joe” never gloms onto a moment of redemption for anyone. While not everyone here is necessarily malicious of heart, no one has an inkling of moral purpose.
Opens: August 3, 2012 (LD Entertainment)
Production company: Voltage Pictures, Ana Media
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Matthew McConaughey, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon
Director: William Friedkin
Screenwriter: Tracy Letts
Based on a play by: Tracy Letts
Producers: Nicolas Chartier, Scott Einbinder
Executive producers: Christopher Woodrow, Molly Conners, Vicki Cherkas
Director of photography: Caleb Deschanel
Production designer: Franco-Giacomo Carbone
Music: Tyler Bates
Costume designer: Peggy Schnitzer
Editors: Darrin Navarro
NC-17 rating, 103 minutes