William Friedkin’s redneck noir Killer Joe isn’t a very nice movie, to put it mildly. The trailer-trash characters are all dim, vicious, or corrupt (a few are all three at once) and the schemes they perpetrate against one another are depraved, culminating in a finale that’s as nasty and perverse as mainstream American moviemaking gets. But damn if it isn’t hugely entertaining. This is base potboiler material done right — with humour, and with so much relish it leaves you gobsmacked. There are a million ways to be offended by it, but to take offence would be, I think, a mistake. If I thought even for a moment that Friedkin and screenwriter Tracy Letts (adapting his own play) were attempting to say something about people or America or the South or whatever, I’d be revolted. But it’s pretty clear their only aim is to entertain us with garish outrageousness, and in that it succeeds amply.
If nothing else, Killer Joe is an excellent demonstration of the importance of tone. Before we even lay eyes on the characters, we’re made aware we’re not in the real Texas, but a lurid, pulp version of it — Jim Thompson-ville. The film opens with a literal dark and stormy night: a battered pickup speeds through a driving rain as lightning tears across the sky. The desperate driver, Chris (Emile Hirsch), pulls into a decrepit trailer park where chained Rottweilers snap and bark and trash fires burn in emptied out oil drums. Pounding on a trailer door, Chris shouts for his father but is greeted instead by his father’s new wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon), naked from the waist down. “Goddamn it, put some clothes on,” he yells as he begins shedding his own soaked clothing. “I didn’t know it was you,” Sharla grunts, unconcerned.
Things get even trashier from there — Chris wants his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), to help take out a hit on his mom for the inheritance — but there’s something almost innocent in the characters’ horridness. They’re more amoral than immoral, and Friedkin and Letts clearly delight in all the bad behaviour, as do the actors. This isn’t Lars von Trier’s Dogville, in which the rancid, repellent people were used to indict America, or Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me, in which florid pulp was treated as brutal truth. This is affectionate absurdism — a black-comic embrace of the worst clichés about the rural South.
Letts, who hails from Tulsa, Oklahoma, wrote Killer Joe in 1991 when he was only 26, and it quickly became a cult favourite of less genteel theatre troupes (as did his follow-up, Bug, which Friedkin filmed in 2006). Letts has since moved on to more “mature” work, winning the Pulitzer Prize for August: Osage County in 2007, but he remains infatuated by sordid behaviour. He’s a lot like the Irish playwright Martin McDonough — not great at depth, but funny, and with a real ear for voices and theatrical squabbling. You could argue Letts and McDonough both pander to big-city theatregoers with regional, white-trash burlesque, but there’s too much good-humoured vitality in their work to dismiss.
In the movie version of Killer Joe, the title character comes at us in pieces: black hat, pristine cowboy boots, ornate belt buckle, impenetrable sunglasses. As played by Matthew McConaughey, this cop turned contract killer is a handsome psycho, cool as a desert wind but hard and forbidding as a cactus. McConaughey uses stillness to great effect here, and he doesn’t waste words. Everything he says and does is magnificently precise, as if he were saving energy for some future ferocious attack. He’s bluntly professional with Chris and Ansel, who want to hire him, but he’s courtly with Chris’s ripely virginal sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), a sort of enchanted innocent who nevertheless knows more about the world than she lets on. Smitten, Joe offers his services with one condition: that Chris and Ansel hand Dottie over as a “retainer.”
From there, a queasy trajectory takes hold, and to say anything more about the plot would be to spoil things. But I think a word needs to be said about the violence, which, though deployed sparingly, is likely to upset a lot of people, not least because it’s so gendered. Most of the bloody physical violence (save one moment) gets inflicted on men, while all of the sexual violence — which is, by nature, more intimate — gets inflicted on women. In short, it’s not exactly a feminist work, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for being unable to get past some of what happens. But in Friedkin and Letts’ defence, the degradation isn’t meant to be enjoyable, exactly. It’s meant to freak us out, like the violence in horror movies does, and the more sick and twisted it gets, the more inappropriate it gets, the more memorable it becomes. It’s a very thin line, I know, but movies these days are generally so safe and self-censoring I couldn’t help but be impressed by Killer Joe‘s willingness to offend. It’s a blatantly irresponsible movie, and for that alone it deserves celebrating.