Killer Joe

Watch stupid rednecks make dumb mistakes.
★★★
☆
Released: 
2011
Director: 
William Friedkin
Starring: 
Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Hayden Church, Gina Gershon
The Setup: 
Ill-advised involvement with a contract killer destroys some trashy lives.
Discussion: 

My friend and I didn't know this was coming, then one day saw a trailer and were both like "I want to see THAT!" This is a violent movie about dumb white trash trying to dabble in crime, and how it works put poorly for them, which is something I'm always amused to see. It is also highly influenced by the work of Jim Thompson, and couldn't exist if The Killer Inside Me (the novel, not the two films) didn't exist. And it's an adaptation of a play by Tracey Betts, and it's directed by William Freidkin.

We open late at night with Chris, played by Emile Hirsch, arriving in the middle of the night to the trailer of his father and stepmother. We can see the humor of this film when the stepmother, Sharla, played by Gina Gershon, answers the door nude from the waist down, her vagina right in Chris' face, and when he comments, she explains "I didn't know it was you." Chris takes his father, Ansel, played by Thomas Hayden Church, out to the car and explains that Chris' mother, and Ansel's ex, stole Chris' coke and sold it, so now he has no money. He has thought of a plan to kill her and split her life insurance policy, which leaves everything to Dottie, Chris' younger sister. And he has also heard of this cop who is a contract killer on the side. Soon he contacts Matthew McConaughey as Killer Joe.

Joe shows up in head-to-toe black, taller than everyone and speaking with a slow, menacing calmness. He soon learns that Chris has no money, and the deal is almost off--until Joe says he'll accept a "retainer," in the form of Dottie. She seems to be a bit of a simpleton who claims to remember almost being smothered by her mother when she was an infant. She also sleepwalks and seems vaguely psychic. The key to understanding this character comes halfway through, when she gives her age as twelve. Even though the actress who plays her is much older, we are to understand that this is because it would be too obscene to show an actual twelve-year-old in the role, so she is an older person meant to be understood as younger, as in Kubrick's version of Lolita. Chris and Ansel don't take more than a moment to agree to give up their sister and daughter's virginity in the service of a big monetary payoff. Ansel says "Well, it just might do her some good."

SPOILERS > > >
Soon Joe has his "date" with Dottie, and when Chris returns home later, Joe is there, naked, with Ansel and Sharla, who treat the situation as normal. The whole reason Chris needs money is that he owes it to a local gangster and is badly beaten up to get it. Soon Dottie is in love with Joe, and wants to be with him. Chris asks Joe to abort the mission, but turns out he's already done it. There is a hilarious bit regarding Ansel's one "good" suit as they appear before the lawyer to collect their settlement. But, as often happens to stupid people who enact stupid plans, turns out that Chris was a little bit misled about where this money goes, which is revealed in a funny moment. The bottom line is that they won't be getting the money, and they're already in deep with Killer Joe. There's a moment of bitter humor when Dottie naively asks "Is Joe coming back?" and they grimly reply "Yes... Joe is coming back."

It builds to a big, violent and scary scene in which Joe terrorizes the family and enacts a particular torture on one of them. It manages to be quite shocking and queasy-making--while again having flashes of very, very dark humor--and even more secrets and double-crosses are revealed. Then, in the final moments, it devolves into what is either a) something me and my friend did not fully understand, or b) a total mess. My friend came away feeling the answer was b, while I was impressed enough by the craft of the rest of the film to believe that it might be a. But could very well end up being b.
< < < SPOILERS END

Ultimately, really good, but sadly not great. I have an ingrained fondness for simple trash getting over their heads in schemes they're not equipped to handle, so I was already on the film's side and enjoyed the humor of it all. But even if you don't think the ending is a mess, it's all still lacking a certain something. Compare to the Jim Thompson books that clearly inspired it, and you find that they manage to create themes and subtexts that give the stories larger resonance and show the characters as part of a system much larger than themselves, whereas here... not so much. The novel of The Killer Inside Me gets its power from the psychological depth it gives its main character--something both film adaptations failed to capture--but here, Joe is just a big, smart, evil shark, and that's about all we learn about him. The characters, amusing as they are, ultimately are just created solely to act as pawns in this play, and don't have inner lives or real depth. Compare to The Grifters, where the hints of incest approach the resonance of a Greek tragedy, and here, where the hints of incest are little more than lurid details.

Not that the cast isn't brilliant and doesn't give all they've got, elevating the material. I've read some say that Hirsch is miscast, but I bought his impassioned simpleton routine. He also has an overeager mania in his eyes that would make him an excellent casting choice as Jack Black's brother. Gershon again proves herself a solid actress willing to go anywhere her character takes her, and Church brings a beleaguered, moving quality to his character, a man aware of and defeated by the weight of his own stupidity, that amounts to more than the sum of his lines. And McConaughey deserves a lot of the attention he is getting as Joe, turning the toned-down calm that is part of his charm in handsome, lighter roles into a source of menace and terror. I never hated him as much as many others did, and I hope he continues to go further in widening up the range of roles he takes.

I liked this pretty well as I was sitting through it, and it's pretty much okay, thought it has definitely diminished in memory. But if it were a choice between watching this and reading something by Jim Thompson, read Jim Thompson.

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