Movie review: Killer Joe

by David Sexton

A family of losers, living in a trailer in Dallas, decide the only way they can get hold of some money is to have mother murdered so that they can collect her life insurance. Knowing themselves to be incompetent, they bring in a professional assassin, a sinister cop who runs this little business on the side. But Killer Joe wants to be paid in advance.

Just as he’s about to walk away, the daughter of the family, dreamy 20-year-old Dottie, catches his eye and he agrees to

take the job if she’s given to him as a “retainer” — and from there, the situation spirals down into bloody mayhem.

 is directed by 76-year-old William Friedkin, whose glory days were long ago, his big hits, The French Connection in 1971 and The Exorcist in 1973, having been followed by a lot of less notable films. The critic David Thomson, unimpressed, characterised Friedkin as a “chronic sensationalist”. But in Killer Joe the sensationalism seems pretty acute: Friedkin is going full out to show that age has only made him nastier.

So we get an effective combination of raw, in-your-face direction — Friedkin has a “two takes only” rule — and a finely honed script. For Killer Joe is not pulp fiction but the first stage play by the Pulitzer-winning dramatist Tracy Letts, premiered back in 1993 and widely performed since.

It’s a real actor’s piece and the central roles have been brilliantly cast here. Matthew McConaughey, previously always the likeable rom-com hero who gets his shirt off, is a stone cold brute as Joe, intelligent and scary, stylishly dressed and speaking very slowly and formally, then suddenly exploding into violence.

As Ansel, the deadbeat dad, so stupid as perhaps to have been actually brain-damaged by his habits — we’re sailing close to retard humour here — Thomas Haden Church (Jack in Sideways) is very funny, delivering some classic lines. In the midst of utter destruction, he wants to know, “What about my beer money?” When Joe asks if he’s aware of the trouble they’re in, he says truthfully, “I’m never aware.”

Ansel’s son Chris (Emile Hirsch), a drug-dealer who owes his supplier $6,000, is equally hopeless, with just enough remaining decency to screw up his own schemes, only realising too late that he shouldn’t have his mother killed and his sister prostituted. And Ansel’s girlfriend Sharla (Gina Gershon) is perfectly unreliable too, given to carelessly wandering around half-naked (the lower half).

The star of this melodrama, though, is Juno Temple, now 22 but looking much younger, as Dottie, a girl both precocious and childish, her grip on reality coming in and out of focus. Temple has a great way of making wilful behaviour seem plausible, of being pert and completely open at the same time, in and out of her mind and body. It’s going to be good to see what she does in the years

to come. She, too, gets to wander around in the nude a lot (Tracy

Letts’s own mum has observed “everybody in Tracy’s stories gets naked or dead”) and there’s a protracted seduction scene in which Joe, his back turned, orders her to strip. It’s perverse and hardly consensual but it’s played as a love scene nonetheless. “How old are you now?” says Joe. “Twelve,” says Dottie. “So am I,” he tells her.

It is easy to imagine this scene working hypnotically on stage, just before the interval perhaps — while the second big sex scene, explicitly a form of rape, involving a fried chicken drumstick — about as porny as you can get while faking — is even more clearly a prize theatrical effect.

Friedkin and Letts himself as scriptwriter have moved some scenes outside the trailer but the final act is confined to it once more, forcing the realisation that this isn’t originally a movie at all but a play filmed and as little otherwise adapted as possible, always a disappointment and an oppression (the worst case recently being Polanski’s Carnage). It differs in this from, say, the films of the Coen brothers, apparently similar in mood but always much more expansively imagined in their landscapes.

Though bad stuff certainly happens in Texas (see Herzog’s Into the Abyss), Killer Joe isn’t really about the world outside at all. It’s a classic dramatic workout, about people failing to get what they want, trapped in the family.

What we have here is a fine addition to the sinful old genre of Southern Gothic (“on the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister”, etc). Grotesque maybe — but “we’re all grotesque” (Flannery O’Connor).

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