“Sometimes you had to just laugh.”
Jim Thompson, Population 1280
They'll be there when we're gone/
Bright tumors, rooted in the dark/
Crowding the dirt. Nothing makes them grow/
But nothing kills them either
James W. Hall, White Trash
Killer Joe is possibly the most misanthropic, ugly, downright vile film I have ever seen. And I am only fairly sure that I mean this as a compliment.
Of course this is hardly surprising, human ugliness has always been William Friedkin’s beat as it were. From the junkies on Popeye Doyle’s beat, to the underworld of Cruising to the slow motion meltdown of personality in Bug. Friedkin has always had an uncanny ability to showcase people at their worst.
But there is something about Killer Joe that goes over the line even for him. In its series of lovingly depicted grotesqueries, Friedkin goes well and truly beyond the pale. Imagine a version of The Killer Inside Me directed by John Waters and you’re nearly there. It’s a film that provoked in me continued gouts of horrified laughter, not so much because I found what was happening funny, but as a futile attempt to purge myself. Here for once is a film that earns every inch of it’s NC-17 rating, and if you don’t go into the film expecting an ugly, ugly wallow it will take your face clean off.
Killer Joe centers around a family of dumb hicks who scheme to kill off their mother in order to collect her life insurance. Though the hicks are venal, evil people they are also cowards so they decide to hire the job out to a contractor. Not having the money to pay for said services they decide to pimp out one of their members, a dreamy moonchild who tip toes right up to the line of batshit insane. Roger Ebert noted that these are the stupidest characters he has come across outside of a comedy, and I can find no way to improve upon the point. Their scheme is so rudimentary and dumb that I almost have trouble classifying Killer Joe as a crime film. It’s just a situation that they’re kind of stumbling into rather than some thought out plan.
As such Killer Joe is not so much a film about the mechanics of said crime as it is a detailed portrait of the sort of people who would try to pull it off. The roots of the film as a theater piece are clearly visible (Tracy Letts, has a fantastic knack for dialogue, one stretch in which Hirsch has a cordial but frank discussion with a drug dealer, made me laugh by the sheer Texasness of it). Though Friedkin is too skilled of a stylist for it not to feel cinematic, and certain images, the Kentucky Fried BJ, the final look on McCounghey’s face are as powerful and primal images as any in Friedkin’s career.
The acting is superb, particularly Thomas Hayden Church as an affable hick who has allowed his “Go with the flow” nature to carry him all the way to the gates of hell, and Gina Gershwin as a half bright piece of trailer trash with the heart of a coyote. Even Emile Hirsch, an actor I have little use for, does a fantastic job as the venal, crass little man who puts the whole catastrophuck into motion.
But of course Matthew McConaughey towers above them all. I balked when I heard his performance compared to Robert Mitchum, a claim I don’t take lightly. But damnit if the boot doesn’t fit. In his lazy sexuality, hooded eyed masculinity and air of barely restrained violence, he earns the comparison. He cuts through the film with a sleepy voiced confidence, the mask on his psychosis only slipping once or twice. But when it does... Really who the fuck woke this guy up? I want to send flowers. If you had told me a year ago that two of my favorite performances of the year would belong to McConaughey I would have laughed in your face. Now I can’t help but look at the wasteland the last ten years of his career have been and feel genuine anger.
Killer Joe opens with a shot of a filth covered pitbull outside in the rain. The Pitbull is barking at the lead character who keeps yelling at it “To shut the fuck up,” as though the dog understands English. The dog doesn’t care, it just keeps barking, straining at the leash, trying to get at the kid so he can maul him. Dumb aggression and mean self interest is all it knows, and no one gives enough of a shit about it to take it out in the rain, So it just stays tethered to its chain, tied to a shitty trailer, trying to maul everything that walks into its field of vision.