Exploitation cinema is good for the id. Because the great majority of us are not thieves, murderers, sociopaths, or people with problematic sexual instincts, exploitation cinema provides a safe space and an opportunity to view characters who may be any of the combinations noted above without having to experience the debilitating guilt, life-ending consequences, or moral panic that would incur if we ever engaged in such activities ourselves. In other words, exploitation cinema is a brief respite from a reality mostly determined by standards of law and order, rational behavior, stability, and long-term thinking. Exploitation cinema provides the exhilaration of chaos that is enthralling to witness onscreen, but that one wouldn’t want to encounter in anything resembling reality.
While William Friedkin’s Killer Joe is a film that fully earns its NC-17 rating with its portrayals of abject cruelty, predatory sex, and strange and unusual acts of punishment, it’s never a film that asks audiences to take the events onscreen all to seriously as Killer Joe doesn’t even seem to even take itself at face value. The movie’s mood and ending will certainly polarize audiences, but if one is willing to accept and go along with the esoteric tone Friedkin strikes (and there are perfectly legitimate reasons not to do so), then Killer Joe is likely one of the more engaging films of the year if for no other reason than its sheer audacity.
Killer Joe is an adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts’s (August: Osage County) first work from 1993. The film marks Friedkin and Letts’s second consecutive collaboration after Friedkin’s 2007 adaptation of Letts’s 1996 play Bug. Killer Joe stars Emile Hirsch as Chris, a clumsy, bottom-of-the-rung drug peddler who, in pursuit of paying of his debts, comes up with the idea of having his mother killed in order to cash in on her $50,000 life insurance policy that Chris’s younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) is supposed to inherit. Chris runs the idea by his slow-on-the-uptake father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), who insists on bringing his pizza parlor employee wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) into the mix. Chris and Ansel hire an experienced contract killer, Dallas police detective Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), to do the deed. “Killer Joe” requires a $25K upfront fee, but settles on taking the underage Dottie as collateral until the debt can be paid. Predictably, things don’t go exactly as predicted, which puts Dottie and the rest of the family in a deadly perilous situation.
Killer Joe is the kind of movie that you know from the first frame can’t end well. But the familiar circumstances of the film’s set-up are mostly beside the point. Friedkin masterfully imbues the film with a tone that balances pitch-black dread, unbearable tension, and laugh-out-loud comedy. The director displays an expertise here at building tension to make the humor more effective without letting it relieve, reduce, or assuage any of the film’s many compromising situations. In other words, the tone in Killer Joe feels so expertly and delicately crafted that we only laugh at the film’s absurd scenarios if and when the filmmaker permits it so.
There is no such thing as a redeemable character or circumstance in Killer Joe. The film presents a corrupt low-income Dallas landscape that already assumes a non-existent moral compass on behalf of every character that occupies it. Nobody here seems capable of deliberated decision-making. This aspect of Killer Joe could certainly bushwhack a few McConaughey fans that stumble into one of the limited-release screens it opens on this weekend, but this component is also what makes the film the provocative and engaging experience that it is. McConaughey and Friedkin operate in harmony, both more than willing to take Killer Joe to eleven while showing the discipline and restraint necessary to make its moments of transgression effective.
Friedkin’s work here is far more interesting and lively than the self-serious studio dramas for middle-aged men he made ten years ago like Rules of Engagement and The Hunted. Friedkin was one of the most versatile filmmakers of the New Hollywood era, showing that he could tackle genres as disparate as the action film and horror with equal confidence in The French Connection and The Exorcist. In his collaborations with Letts, Friedkin, like Coppola, seems to have rejected the limitations of studio filmmaking altogether in favor of making smaller, unusual passion projects for a limited but present audience.
McConaughey, meanwhile, turns in his third compelling performance of the year after the similarly esoteric (but far bubblier) Bernie and his commanding supporting role as a veteran male stripper in Magic Mike. One gets the sense that McConaughey too has, at least in 2012, freed himself from the delimiting expectations created by his romantic comedies, preferring to give his all to strange characters in smaller movies.
Thomas Haden Church strikes the perfect chord as know-nothing trailer trash. His performance perfectly encapsulates both the film’s appeal and its limitations. On the one hand, Killer Joe is a well-crafted film that invites the viewer to laugh at it, even if that laughter emerges from discomfort. This laughter assuages the possible damage done by the film’s Southern stereotypes and troubling gender politics, for one gets a sense that those involved with Killer Joe are all to aware of the representations they’re creating; this Dallas-set film shot in Louisiana doesn’t seem to place verisimilitude high on its list of cinematic values. But then, on the other hand, if Killer Joe isn’t interested in taking its characters seriously enough to explore the reasons behind their behavior, what exactly are we left with in the end?
Killer Joe, the play and the film, has been described elsewhere as “southern Gothic,” a genre that typically displays an awareness and preoccupation with Southern history. Killer Joe, on the other hand, is a film without reflection, a film about the basest instincts expressed by people in a given moment. Thus, Killer Joe feels more “southspolitation” than “southern Gothic.” As expressed above, exploitation is incredibly useful, especially when it’s this well-crafted.
But exploitation can also be incredibly empty. Killer Joe is never boring for a moment, but it’s not a film that seems concerned with the purpose its representations serve outside of the given moment: the film depicts cruel violence, but has no insights about violence; a major component of its plot arc involves statutory rape, but Killer Joe isn’t interested in understanding the fetishization of infantilized women, nor the psychology that inspires the behavior of its title character; and Killer Joe is a film that utilizes Southern white trash stereotypes, but to no particular end but the entertaining utility of an obvious stereotype.
Killer Joe is not a film that by any means needs to take greater considerations of its representations into account. But because the film chooses not to say much after taking the audience through such a compelling, often hilarious, but dreadful journey, in the end Killer Joe adds up to an experience that feels as ephemeral and fleeting as the base desires of its living-in-the-moment central characters.
The Upside: A slow-burn, gloriously batshit film with pitch-perfect performances and a difficult tone struck by a master filmmaker.
The Downside: …but there’s absolutely nothing to scratch at below this well-executed surface.
On the Side: Friedkin reportedly cast McConaughey to explore the actor’s “unrealized talent.” If this and McConaughey’s supporting role in Magic Mike don’t convince the public he has more to offer than Ghosts of the Girlfriends Past, nothing will.