Mark Reviews Movies

Killer Joe


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: William Friedkin

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon

MPAA Rating: NC-17 (for graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality)

Running Time: 1:43

Release Date: 7/27/12 (limited); 8/3/12 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 2, 2012

It is impossible to discuss Killer Joe without raising a key event of its climax, and as such, I will attempt to remain as vague as possible on specific details of it. It is an act of abject cruelty and debasement involving a fried chicken leg. The problem is not necessarily the deed itself, which only heightens our awareness of how awful a person its eponymous character is (not to mention the rest of the characters, who are, in their own ways, terrible people), but in the staging.

It's a lengthy bit—absurd, yes, but still nasty. The length forces us to come to terms with what is happening, and there are only two options: 1.) We eventually become desensitized to it; or 2.) we cannot and wind up distracted by the discomforting sight that keeps popping into frame while the characters are settling their differences (As the screenplay by Tracy Letts is based on his play, one imagines the effect of this material on stage; at least director William Friedkin's camera can look away occasionally).

Perhaps the point is that the final confrontation is ultimately unnecessary; after all, no amount of reasoning will convince the heartless killer to relinquish any of his power, a point he makes perfectly clear by utterly humiliating a woman in such a way that is simultaneously both sexual and asexual. Furthering that argument is the plot itself, a noir-inspired tale of murder that is complicated by double- and triple-crosses, misjudgments of character, and—as has become more commonplace and emphasized in modern examples of the style—the plain, old stupidity of its participants. Whether or not the dismissal of the key plot points of the final act is the case, the focal point of the scene is the rampant misogyny on display.

It begins with a young man who has gotten in too deep with wrong people. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is in debt to a crime boss in Dallas, and his very life is now in jeopardy. He has no sympathy from his family. His father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) has no money to give him anyway, and his stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) doesn't care for her stepson any more than he does for her. She has something on the side with another man, too. His mother is too busy with her new boyfriend to notice, and his sister Dottie (Juno Temple) either has some developmental problems or is just incredibly flighty.

Chris has heard a few rumors. The first is that his mother has a life insurance policy worth a small fortune and that Dottie is the beneficiary. The second is the existence of Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a local police detective who moonlights as a contract killer. Chris is able to put two and two together on this one.

Joe has a pair of rules of equal importance: Follow his directions to the letter, and pay the money up front. Chris is unable to follow either during their first meeting, especially considering that Joe's services are requisite for his payment. Instead, Joe sees an opportunity for a down payment in the carefree Dottie. Chris doesn't like the idea one bit, considering his dreams of his sister are of the unnatural kind.

Dottie offers the best possible description of Joe after meeting him for the first time: "His eyes hurt." There's the potential for double meaning in her words. The obvious is that his stare causes pain, and that is surely the truth. McConaughey has a no-nonsense way about him coupled with an air of superiority over and disdain for these people. Here is a man who has people at their worst and has adapted to ensuring that, no matter whom he encounters, he is always the one for others to fear.

The other possible intention of the statement is that there is hurt in his eyes—some deep-seated pain only she can see. It's difficult to see that in any of his behavior except, perhaps, when he is with Dottie. Clearly, his intentions with her are of the sexual variety, but note the way he seems to genuinely listen to her during their first conversation. There's also something oddly tender in the way he turns around when she starts to undress to put on a dress in front of him. Then again, the only reason she is doing so is because he pressured her to in the first place. The movie's final revelation and Joe's reaction to it do suggest a human being beneath the monstrous exterior.

Letts and Friedkin take many pains to ensure that the characters remain the focus by allowing the long, stagy dialogue scenes to take shape without affectation (A chase sequence is tacked on for no apparent reason). The characters start broad stereotypes and become desperate and ultimately helpless people; the trailer home that begins a sign of their status as caricatures becomes a prison. The plot, as it is, winds and weaves with the sensation of inevitable imprisonment as well. It's that one scene in Killer Joe, though, in which we become captives to the previously mentioned humiliation, and—there is no way to say it without employing a pun—it leaves a truly bad taste.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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