Killer Joe undercuts notions of paternalism and authority by exploiting emotional strains and stresses induced by capitalism and stupidity. The film stars Matthew McConaughey as “Killer Joe,” who is charming and urbane. It is those characteristics that help set the film’s tension for you know that something dark and sinister lurks beneath Joe’s surface. And indeed when it explodes the film becomes very intense and uncomfortable.
The film is directed by William Friedkin, whose impressive credits include The Exorcist, The French Connection and more recently Bug. Killer Joe was originally written as a play and adapted for the screen by its playwright, Tracy Letts. This is the second collaboration between Friedkin and Letts, who both worked on Bug.
The film’s plot is familiar. As the film opens in a downpour, Chris, played by Emile Hirsch, bangs on the trailer park where his father, Ansel, played with brilliant indifference and imbecility (traits common to his son, though less severe) by Thomas Haden Church. We learn that Chris owes a lot of money to a drug dealer and is looking for some financial assistance from his father.
The disheveled and dilapidated condition of the trailer park tells us everything we need to know about Ansel’s money situation. He has none to loan to his son and so Chris hatches a plan. Well, it is not really his plan, but that’s beside the point.
Chris wants to have his mother killed and use the insurance money to pay off his debts. Further, there will be extra cash for Ansel. As the son and father discuss the plan in his truck, the storm continues. Plans conceived in a downpour never work out. Chris’s little sister and Ansel’s daughter, Dottie, played perfectly by Juno Temple, overhears the discussion. Drenched in her nightgown, she thinks it’s a good plan to kill her mother. The film is often a bit off-kilter, and this scene introduces that sensibility. Why is she hanging out in the rain in her night gown? Obviously, the siblings do not hold their mother in high regard, nor for that matter does her ex-husband.
So Chris contacts Killer Joe. How he obtains the number provides clues to the double-cross at the film’s conclusion. Joe is a detective, and he kills for money as a side job. His up-front fee is 25,000 dollars and of course, the father and son don’t have that kind of cash. No exceptions, Joe says, but he will consider a retainer—Dottie.
Dottie is virginal, sweet and naïve. Qualities that the harden Killer Joe finds too irresistible, so he will take Dottie as a retainer until his fee is paid. Very creepy to say that least, as father and big brother ultimately surrender Dottie to the hitman, a man they have known for roughly ten minutes. Aren’t a daughter’s father and big brother supposed to protect her from danger? And aren’t the police similarly charged to do the same, too? Freikdin and Letts invert these sensibilities to great effect here.
Neither Chris nor Ansel tell Dottie she’s been “retained” and so when Killer Joe arrives for his “date,” we are not quite sure what will happen. Indeed, it is a tense scene. As for Dottie’s part, she quickly acquiesces to Joe and seems to enjoy his attention. Joe is hardly mean and considering that Dottie pines for something beyond the trailer park home she lives in with her stupid and indifferent father and his cuckolding wife, played well by Gina Greshen, we can hardly blame her.
The film has been released with the NC-17 rating, I suspect because of the final scene in the trailer park’s kitchen. Of course their insurance plan fails, but Joe still needs to be paid. Double-crosses and betrayals surface in the final sequence in the trailer park. This scene is equally violently intense and darkly humorous. In fact, the film often goes for laughs after or even during uncomfortably violent scenes. But I suppose that’s the point. Like Joe, who is charming and polite, (he insists that the dinner table be set) but also hostile and violent (his use of a pumpkin can and chicken leg jolts us.) The humor juxtaposes the violence heightening both in the process.
The film leaves some things to our imagination as it ends. Some will no doubt leave the theater unsatisfied as a result. The director and screenwriter essentially invite filmgoers to make up their minds as to what happens next. One thing is certain though; it is one of the most intense scenes I have seen this summer. It should keep you on the edge of your seat, too.
Reviewed by Ron Peltier