Review by Ken Burke
Definitely not a broad-appeal comedy-drama about trailer-trash crime and sex, but the acting is marvelous and the situation so outrageous that you might just have to see it.
For a good number of moviegoers this photo may be all you need to see to determine if William Friedkin’s Killer Joe is something you’d care to have floating around in your cerebral system. It comes from the first scene of the film where desperate son Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch)—but if that surname is supposed to represent the human condition then we’re worse off than I realized—comes in desperation to visit Papa Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) in his typically-trashed trailer, but if you think the sight of the (never really frontal but still direct enough) nude “patriarch” (technically, but as the head of this family he’s a few beers short of a six-pack) is distasteful, then you’d probably never have gotten to it because before Chris can even get inside out of the rain he (and we) get a totally-frontal shot of Step-Mama Sharla’s (Gina Gershon) brazen beaver right at eye-level as she opens the door (she does have a bit more “dignity” than her dim-witted hubby, I guess, because she’s covered her top half with a T-shirt; however, she never bothers to reconsider her southern exposure, despite standing there to have a few choice words with Step-Sonny Chris, who later complains to Ansel how difficult it is to think straight with “her bush staring me in the face,” a relatively surprising level of insistence on propriety, given everything this family is willing to indulge in). The beginning combination of lightning, rain, fire, and a constantly barking dog tells you right off that there’s danger to be found here (although not the fully serious, myth-busting kind that you find with similar circumstances in Clint Eastwood’s magnificent coda to the western, Unforgiven ) in this deeply-disturbed, manically-hilarious exploration of a supremely-dysfunctional family that makes Julie Dulpy’s French folks in 2 Days in New York (see my review in the 8/25/12 post if you like) look blasé by comparison. Either you’re willing to take Killer Joe’s NC-17 (a rarity indeed in our mainstream-oriented cinema industry) wild ride or you’d prefer something a bit more conventional. (If so, you might consider Salim Akil’s Sparkle, which I won’t actually review but will steer you to http://sparkle-movie.com/site/ to begin your inquiries, with a warning that to get to the powerful performance numbers by Jordan Sparks, the late and lamented Whitney Houston, and the knock-you-dead [sorry for the allusion, Whitney] standouts from Carmen Ejogo you’ll have to get through more corn than the Midwest has been able to produce in this drought-damaged summer season).
If choir-trained triumph over tragedy isn’t quite your thing, though, you might be a candidate for Killer Joe’s brand of convention-defying assaults on good taste (and, at times, facial appearance for some of the characters) as we toss up a Texas salad (which, when I was growing up there, usually consisted of either apples and bananas with mayonnaise or lettuce and tomatoes with French dressing) of drugs, matricide, arranged sex with a barely-legal virgin, double-crossings all around, the various bloody beatings I noted above, and a couple of final scenes that will take your breath (and any sense of trust you might have for supposed officers of the law) away, all of which will either be as much of a guilty pleasure as is the tuna casserole in one important scene or will leave you with a desire to cleanse your soul (so you may end up sneaking into another theatre to see Sparkle after all). If you can delve into this sordid presentation of some of the worst that society has to offer (with Matthew McConaughey‘s dual career as Dallas police detective Joe Cooper and [expensive but efficient] hired killer and Hirsch’s Chris Smith as one of the worst hard-luck cases you can imagine), you’ll find that the descent into hell just goes on and on at a pace that would make Dante dizzy. What’s even crazier is the Smith family, where Chris is in serious hock ($6,000) to his dealers because instead of selling his coke (not the kind that comes in a bottle, although he wishes he had that much now) he’s left with nothing because his mother (not Ansel’s second wife, Sharla; she’s got other transgressions I’ll hint at later) stole it from him; Chris and Ansel are eager to kill the former Mrs. Smith (we don’t get to see much of her, but from what we do see after the deed you certainly wouldn’t confuse her with another Mrs. Smith [Angelina Jolie] from the 2005 Doug Liman Mr. & Mrs. …, where Angie met
Billy Beane Brad Pitt) to collect her $50,000 life insurance;
childish 20-year-old Dottie Smith (Juno Temple), the assumed beneficiary of the
insurance (although Ansel wants a larger share:
“She my ex-wife!”), becomes
the (ultimately willing) down payment for Joe’s contract given the Smiths’
shortage of up-front cash; and Ansel and Sharla seem to be the world’s most
mismatched couple, given his general doltishness and her own treacherous
involvement with the murder plot. The
Smiths aren’t exactly who Tennessee Ernie Ford, Andy Griffith, and Jim Nabors
(or my Grandma Babe Wise) would have referred to as “good people.” (Actually, they’d all probably say, “Good fer
nuthin’ more likely.”)
If there’s anyone in this film who seems to have any complexity—well, in the context here, maybe complexity isn’t exactly the right word; let’s try “unpredictability”—it’s Dottie, with equal doses of sheltered nativity, erotic intrigue (not unlike the main female character from another Southern “entertainer,” Tennessee Williams, from his one-act “Mississippi Delta comedy,” 27 Wagons Full of Cotton , more famous as Elia Kazan’s 1956 Baby Doll film, with Carroll Baker in the title role), spoiled-brat self-centeredness, and plot-defining actions. One of those actions is her eventual agreement to have sex with Joe, in a most “romantic” doggy-style mode (after his much-less-than-romantic insistence at their tuna casserole dinner that she change from her usual casual T-shirt and jeans cut-offs into the slinky black dress that Sharla insisted she buy to keep Joe happy [given how desperate everyone in the family is to get the murder done; that is, until Chris changes his mind, too late as usual]), which bonds them in an unexpected manner, allowing Joe a reason to keep company with this crew of imbeciles even after his services are no longer needed. That just brings up more problems with Chris, though, who suddenly decides he needs to protect his precious little sister from this cold-blooded assassin, although he should know (if he watched Star Trek: Next Generation TV reruns instead of just his likely Dukes of Hazzard) that “resistance is futile” where Joe is concerned. But then, Chris’ bottles of brains wouldn’t fill out a six-pack either, especially when he comes up with $1,000 of what he owes to the drug thugs but foolishly throws it away on a horserace just before he’s due to deliver it to them as an appeasement, so it’s no surprise that his efforts at safeguarding Dottie don’t come to much, especially when Dottie doesn’t particularly want to run off to Canada with him but would rather stay with Joe in Texas, a place that Chris comes to characterize as “Nuthin’ but a bucha hicks ‘n rednecks, with too much space ta walk around in” (having spent 37 of my almost-65 years there, I couldn’t agree more, in general, although I do know some notable exceptions of a much higher degree of humanity).
Why she wants to stay with Joe (as best we can assume before a cut-to-black ending straight out of The Sopranos’ TV finale) is something I’ve decided to leave to your curiosity (for those who even have any, given what you now know about the film) rather than blundering ahead with my usual plot spoilers because to get to the end of Dottie and Joe we have to go through Sharla and Joe in a scene that defies almost anything else I’ve ever seen on a screen (except possibly the porno “classic” Deep Throat [Jerry Gerard, 1972; although I acknowledge Linda (Lovelace) Boreman’s allegations that this film is nothing but a series of rapes; you might have the same response to what happens in Killer Joe, although that’s a topic for a long discussion], but I’ll leave the connections to your imagination). To ruin it for those who do want to look into (rather than away from) this cinematic equivalent of too many happy-hour bargains at the Cheap Bourbon Bar would be an act of aesthetic betrayal, if connecting the word “aesthetic” to this film isn’t too great a stretch of conception, despite my (misguided?) admiration for it.
No matter what else you might think about Killer Joe, though, “aesthetic” does have validity regarding the acting abilities of the principals in this film, all of whom have been seen in enough quality roles to assure you that they’re not as dumb as they seem on screen (I wish I could say nobody is, but there were those 37 years in Texas … and G.W. Bush … and Rick Perry … OK, let’s not beat a dead horse, especially when we need to cook it for dinner), but, despite the great presence that not-quite-as-well-known-as-some-of-the-others Juno Temple brings to her fascinating role of Dottie, nothing compares to what we encounter here with native-Texan McConaughey, who just keeps adding to his screen impact in recent months with much meatier roles than in his past, especially in Bernie (Richard Linklater, 2011; fully on the side of law enforcement this time as an East Texas district attorney [my review posted on 5/24/12) and Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh; in which his male stripper character is named Dallas [my review posted on 7/4/12]). We first meet Joe through tight closeups that slowly reveal him one detail at a time (a bit like the way we first see Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca [Michael Curtiz, 1942]), but as the film progresses we learn a lot more about him directly through his firm command of every scene he’s in (even that obnoxious barking dog from the first minutes of the film immediately quiets down when Joe arrives at the Smiths’ trailer, a respect he shows to no one else, including the Smiths) and indirectly through the stories he shares that quietly reveal deeper aspects of his character. In one, he tells of a fat man who burned his own genitals to “avenge” himself on a cheating girlfriend (a tale where I fail to fully grasp the logic but can appreciate the intensity of the intended action). In another, he gives a long explanation of how he grew up on the Texas side of the Red River, which used to carry the border between the Lone Star State and Oklahoma right down the middle of the waters but now completely belongs to Oklahoma. The mild sadness in his telling of this change of his lifelong environment is a telling attribute of this very complex character; I wish that I could tell you about his other soliloquy with Sharla at the end of the film, but you’d be better off just seeing it for yourself. And I should also note that while the story takes place in the unattractive realms of west Dallas (which gets us moving toward Duncanville territory, a location of great psychic disturbance based on my experience with those who have lived there—Carol, I’m just kidding; please put down that X-acto knife), it was all filmed around New Orleans; who knew that the Queen of the Mississippi had suburbs that were such duplicates of its neighbor state to the east? Lesson to be learned: If you’re traveling to either Dallas or New Orleans, stick to the urban centers; the outskirts aren’t likely to be featured in the AAA magazine anytime soon. As we hear from the detective in the Coen brothers’ smash debut, Blood Simple (1984), also about misguided murder plots deep in the heart of Texas, “… down here, you’re on your own,” advice not to be forgotten by the Smith family or anyone else who has dreams of manipulating fate to their own benefit.
In finishing up my comments on Killer Joe, I’ll offer an observation on the Smiths’ trailer and how Ansel is constantly watching TV programs on a large, flat screen but the program images are stretched to fit the wider format from their older, analogue versions (despite that being hard to see in that first infamous photo at the top of this review) that are still being delivered to those either with older model TVs in the former standard 4x3 ratio or those (like Ansel and Sharla) who seemingly can’t afford the pricier tier of actual HD cable channels and so are getting the basic broadcast versions in an ugly-to-watch image (the probable explanation, given the abject poverty that this family seems to wallow in, although even the basic-cable-channel 4x3 delivery could be better formatted to fit within the wide-screen, but it’s likely none of the Smiths have figured out that portion of their TV’s remote). This skewed background constant is a nice signifier of the skewed lives the Smiths lead and the difficulty they face in either knowing what to do to correct their problems or, sadly, being able to rise above those ingrained (inbred?) problems at all. There’s some serious social commentary beneath the grisly humor of this film, but the surface assault on your sensibilities may be all that you can focus on until you get a chance to distance yourself from something that’s so in-your-face at all times that you want to give it a breath mint.
(I couldn’t pass up this final graphic from Killer Joe, even though it has nothing to do with the following comments; it’s just a great graphic with lots of effective allusions to what you encounter with this grimly funny look at law and disorder. But on to the real message here.
I’ve been indulging myself—and hammering my readers [who have now passed the 6.000 mark since the launch last December; thanks to all of you for your time and interest]—in recent months with much longer reviews combining several movies/films [depending on entertainment vs. art orientation] or collections of shorter [for me, not as measured by millimeters] comments. However, my real-job [yes, believe it or not, Mills College actually pays me to ramble on like this, in film history classes and on countless faculty committees] has gotten more intense lately so available time and energy will likely limit me to just one focused subject of analysis for awhile. Whatever I pick I’m sure I’ll still talk it to death, but 1 at a time about once a week is about all I can squeeze in at present, due to my painfully-slow writing process [I really admire those who can conform to the pressures of newspaper deadlines, a no-win scenario for me]. I’ll try to make each review about the most interesting or significant example of whatever I’ve seen lately so that if I can encourage you to see something it will hopefully be well worth your time, at least from the peculiar perspectives that I represent.
Maybe my so-far silent partner, Pat, will finally have a chance to fill in the gap. But until then, as the British say when riding those subway cars in The Tube, “Mind the gap,” at least until the next review comes along.)
If you’d like to know more about Killer Joe here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zzRa3GAqNBY (essentially gives you the whole film—without the wicked pleasure of seeing how these scenes are “fleshed” out—but that may be all you want to see of this challenging NC-17 experience)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HSx8kSvXRc (interview with director William Friedkin)
We encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. You’ll also see our general Spoiler Alert warning that reminds you we’ll be discussing whatever plot details are needed for our comments so please be aware of this when reading any of our reviews and be aware of our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.