“The world is full o’ complainers. An’ the fact is, nothin’ comes with a guarantee. Now I don’t care if you’re the pope of Rome, President of the United States or Man of the Year; somethin’ can all go wrong. Now go on ahead, y’know, complain, tell your problems to your neighbour, ask for help, ‘n watch him fly. Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else… that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, an’ down here… you’re on your own.”
So goes the opening salvo from the Coen Brothers’ classic debut Blood Simple. It’s a great film, and importantly to this review, it’s a great Texan film. Something about that state in particular brings out some of the most hard-boiled pulp fiction America has to offer, and almost always the rule of thumb is the more trailer trash your characters are the better. From The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, through Red Rock West and on to (Coens again) No Country For Old Men, there seems no end to the Lone Star State’s ability to represent the worst the U.S. has to offer in terms of low moral fibre. Which brings us fittingly to Killer Joe.
Killer Joe is the latest film by William Friedkin (of The French Connection and The Exorcist fame), and is adapted from the stage play by Tracy Letts. Shot in just 19 days, it tells the unsavoury story of the Smith family – a degenerate gang of fuck-ups and halfwits who, from the off, you just know are going to get themselves in deeper water than they know how to deal with. The spark of their ills is scatty son Chris (Emile Hirsch), who, having got himself into debt with some drug dealers, has come up with a plan to hire a part-time hit man (titular Texas police officer Joe Cooper) to bump off his mother in order to claim on her insurance policy. Short of the money to front the hit, Chris agrees to use his younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as collateral. Charming.
Now, this may all sound like your run-of-the-mill thriller fare, and to be honest, run-of-the-mill was just what I was expecting. But Friedkin’s name piqued my interest, as did Matthew McConaughey’s presence as Killer Joe. Since Dazed And Confused I’ve always had time for the man. Now, the trailer seemed to give away a lot of the plot. Too much. But trust me, it doesn’t. For many reasons I’m happy (and sickened) to report that Killer Joe is by far the biggest surprise of the year so far. The surprise being just how black-hearted this rotten little film is. It is FILTHY. After watching it you will want a shower, and to clean your teeth. If you’re religious, you may want to go to confession, and admit to your sin. And you may never visit a certain fast-food chain restaurant ever again.
What pans out in this move is dark. There is violence, some of it shocking, some of it borderline sexualised. Friedkin pushes the boundaries of Western conservatism repeatedly. In lesser hands, this would have arrived feeling exploitative and gimmicky. A distasteful worm of a movie. However, between Letts’ fantastic dialogue and one of the best ensemble cast performances in a long time, Killer Joe is saved, and not only that, manages to be one of the most sickeningly enjoyable films of the past few years. It is hilarious. Laugh out loud funny. But it’s a depraved sense of humour that’ll make you ashamed for laughing at other people’s pain, misfortune and dim-wittedness.
McConaughy owns the film as Joe. An eerily calm, slick and psychotic version of his Wooderson character from Dazed And Confused (upsettingly his catchphrase of old – “I love these high school girls; I get older, they stay the same age” – would fit right in here). Awards season is a long way off, and Killer Joe is too crass a picture for the Oscars to honour, but his work is worthy of a nomination. He is rivalled by the entire Smith clan though. Gina Gershon gets her trailer-trash on (and her muff out) as Sharla; a grotesque worthy of The League of Gentlemen. Young (how young?) Dottie either has a screw loose or ought to spend more time in school. Finest of all is Thomas Hayden Church as Ansel –a man so simple that he seems as though he wandered out of a missing scene from The Big Lebowski, where he’d fit in perfectly. Comedy performance of the year, for sure. He’s a big, dumb, loveable creature, even if he isn’t above descending like his kin to the level of a jackal when push comes to shove.
Needless to say the whole plan goes wrong, culminating in an extended dinner scene which betrays the script’s roots as a stage play, yet makes for a breath-taking crescendo. When those credits roll, you’ll feel drained, dismayed, partially violated, but satiated. The last thing you’ll feel is hungry.
All of which makes Killer Joe rather brilliant. And yet… and yet… it’s also awful. I have a strong stomach and a high propensity for dark material, but even so, this movie quite often made me feel uncomfortable. Particularly a long, awkward ‘date’ between Joe and Dottie, which teeters dangerously close to being completely obscene. A lot of people will find this movie downright offensive. One senses that, like he did way back in 1973, William Friedkin is purposefully trying to provoke a response. In that sense Killer Joe is an exploitation movie. What makes it work is that, as grimy as it gets, it remains so enjoyable that you’ll happily take a little more, propelled along by a seedy little score that recalls another guilty pleasure, John McNaughton’s Wild Things.
It won’t be to all tastes, but Killer Joe is invigorating like a firework you didn’t know was about to go off. A firework filled with sick. I can’t recall enjoying a roll in the gutter this much in ages. It can only be Texas.