Appellate Judge Tom Becker likes to start his day with a cup of killer joe and those little doughnuts with sprinkles.
A totally twisted, deep-fried, Texas redneck, trailer park murder story.
The wacky ride that has become the career of director William Friedkin (To Live and Die in L.A., Deal of the Century) marches on with Killer Joe, Friedkin's second collaboration with writer Tracy Letts (Bug 2006). Friedkin's output is dotted with high highs (The French Connection) and low lows (Jade), and he's never shied away from controversy (The Boys in the Band, The Exorcist, Cruising).
While Killer Joe isn't a return-to-'70s-greatness for Friedkin, it's a fascinating oddity, one of Friedkin's more interesting films of the past 20 years. More buzzed about than seen—the film was hit with an NC-17 rating, which hurt its box office potential—it's a sometimes shocking, sometimes goofy, but undeniably gutsy piece of work.
And now, it's on DVD courtesy of Lionsgate.
Facts of the Case
Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch, Milk) has a big problem: He's in the hole to his drug connection for several thousand dollars, and he's going to be killed if he doesn't come up with the money—fast. But Chris has a plan: he's discovered that his mother has a $50,000 life insurance policy and that his sister, Dottie (Juno Temple, Atonement), is the beneficiary. He's also heard about Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, The Lincoln Lawyer), a cop who moonlights as a killer and is said to be the best in this podunk Texas area.
With his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church, Sideways)—who's now married to the slutty, sexy Sharla (Gina Gershon, Face/Off)—in tow, Chris meets with Joe to talk about the hit. Joe's a particular guy, and his rules are nonnegotiable; so when he asks for his fee upfront, Chris and Ansel are stuck.
But Joe then breaks his own rule and offers a compromise: He'll take a retainer in the form of the childlike Dottie. Ansel and—especially—Chris aren't too comfortable with this, knowing, for example, that Dottie's a virgin, but they feel they have no choice.
Unfortunately, what should be simple job turns into anything but, and everyone has to contend with the frightening peculiarity that is Joe.
Ugly, dark, funny, and flat-out riveting, Killer Joe is bound to be a polarizing experience. A charcoal-black comedy that takes no prisoners, Killer Joe is a Southern grotesquerie that at times revels a little too proudly in its own squalor, but offers plenty of rewards for those who can stomach it.
Letts trades on white trash stereotypes; it's a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, with characters that are either so dumb or so amoral you half expect Jerry Springer to jump in front of the camera and announce that the whole thing is a best-of clip from his series. The dialogue has a stylized authenticity, and there are times that Letts pushes a little harder than he needs to, such as a scene near the end when the characters keep repeating that their dinner is from "K-Fry-C." Watching dumb people do dumb things can become tiresome, and Letts clearly feels no love for these characters, presenting them in a way that's condescending and freakish.
Fortunately, his story of backwater skullduggery and twisted passion is strong, with enough nasty twists that the film becomes more than just another dumb redneck screed. On top of that, some of the scenes—particularly those between Joe and Dottie—are infused with a gripping, edgy, seductive power. Outrageously sleazy and authentically weird, Killer Joe is built on shifting rhythms and non-sequitors, and when it works—which is more often than not—it is devastating entertainment.
Killer Joe succeeds in large part thanks to the performances. Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon make the slow-witted Ansel and the sleazy Sharla more than just hick caricatures, with Gershon especially throwing herself into the role. Hirsch occasionally plays his already broadly drawn role a bit too broadly, as though he's on stage rather than on screen, and this, unfortunately, draws attention to the film's theatrical roots; it's not a bad performance, and when he's not over-emoting, he does just fine.
Temple is excellent as woman/child Dottie. She's a bizarre character—simple-minded, perhaps, or maybe the smartest person here. She disarms the dangerous Joe, much to the consternation of Chris, whose feelings for his sister seem to go beyond familial love. Dottie is given to making comments that might or might not make sense, but Temple somehow finds her center; it's a wonderful performance, chilling yet sympathetic, and she matches McConaughey in what is his best role to date—no mean feat, given the intense and outstanding work the actor turns in here.
McConaughey has found the kind of artistic success in boutique films that has eluded him in his more mainstream, bigger budgeted efforts. In 2012, he's received awards and acclaim for his work in Magic Mike, Bernie, and Killer Joe; while I've only seen two of these films (this one and Bernie), I can say that he deserves all the praise he's getting.
McConaughey's Joe is frightening creation, all business when planning a murder, but still a Southern gentleman who never fails to say "please" and "thank you." McConaughey refrains from winking or trying to impart humanity in this beast, who finds an unsettling connection with the barely legal beauty, Dottie; he also plays against his "hot guy" persona, something that had threatened to hobble the actor to a career in forgettable romcoms and action flicks. Yeah, he's still McConaughey, but a wasted version, tricked out in a cowboy hat, big boots, and shades, a pinball and chaw jockey whose native smarts and cool brutality make him a cut above the locals. As the film unfolds, we see the full force of Joe, leading up to an audaciously uncomfortable climax—likely the reason this got slapped with the NC-17—that's alarming, grotesque, and inevitable.
Lionsgate turns out a good-looking standard def release. While I understand that there's an edited-for-R version out there, this is the unrated version of Killer Joe. The picture and audio are very good, befitting a recent release. For supplements, we get a lively commentary by Friedkin, who has a lot to say about the production and the film's NC-17 rating; "Southern Fried Hospitality," a "making of" with Letts and Friedkin; a Q&A with the cast at the SXSW festival; an intro from Friedkin filmed for the festival; and the Unrated trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the actors, for the most part, turn in work that ranges from really good to outstanding, Killer Joe gets bogged down by the feeling that Letts and Friedkin are a little too satisfied with their parade of yokel stereotypes and the "shocking" and squalid nature the goings on. There's no sense of affection or connection for these characters, which is fine, but there is a feeling that we're laughing at them simply because trailer-dwelling people in Texas are funny no matter what they're doing; at times, it just comes off as patronizing.
The poster art shows a piece of fried chicken in the shape of Texas, and tag lines that included "Murder never tasted so good." The film's outrageous climax involves a piece of "K-Fry-C" used in an unorthodox way, and the advertising foreshadowing comes across like a set-up for a crude joke; unfortunately, at times, Killer Joe comes across like a long, vulgar joke that runs out of ideas before the punch line.
Friedkin has always been drawn to edgy, offbeat material, and Killer Joe, with its crude language, intense and violent set pieces, hints of incest, loathsome characters, and nihilistic aura, seems just the thing that the director would jump at. It's a funny and disturbing film, not for everyone, but for those who like their movies far to the left of center, this one's a must-see.
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