DIRECTED BY: William Friedkin
PLOT: A poor Texas family encounters serious trouble after a shady murder deal to acquire a life insurance policy on the mother goes totally wrong.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although the film is exceptionally well made and immensely entertaining, it’s a rather straight exploitation film that uses crassness, violence and exaggerated black comedy to comment on the disintegration of American society. It’s a fantastic film, but not even close to being one of the weirdest of all time. There is only one single scene that could ascend into the sacred cloud of weirdness, and it’s not the one most people are thinking of. Near the beginning of the film, Chris (Emily Hirsch) sees a ghost of his sister Dottie (Juno Temple) in a rather revealing garment, and she stretches her hand out in a peculiar and deliberate way before disappearing. The resultant silent motions and their rapidity gave the scene a creepy feel that was chillingly bizarre. Other than that, this solidly-made shocker doesn’t veer into any territories that are strange enough to stand apart from other movies of its type.
COMMENTS: The distinct flicking sound of a Zippo lighter breaking the black sets the stage for Killer Joe, a film about family, lust, betrayal, and fried chicken. A cavalcade of rednecks, trailers guarded by muscular pooches, booze-hounds, druggies, incest, a nowhere-town pouring with rain and a step mom who refuses to groom her womanly regions follow. By the time the end credits rolled around (with a God-awful country tune in the background), I came to the conclusion that Friedkin and his brilliant cast truly delivered the goods.
Ansel Smith (Thomas Hayden Church) supplies sardonic humor as an utterly careless deadbeat. He is totally subservient to Matthew McConaughey’s Detective Joe Cooper, dutifully responding with “yes sir” after being repeatedly humiliated. He accepts a plan to murder his ex-wife as a chance to get some extra cash, and he appears to be unconcerned for the danger his son Chris is in. The comedy of the film mostly centers on Ansel’s goofy and dim-witted assessments of the terrible trouble his family is in, while the darker aspects come from McConaughey’s complete depravity and manipulation of the Smith family. Throw in an unfaithful wife and a son who cuts too many corners (Chris is shown gambling at the tracks even when he owes money to mobsters), and you see that the rest of the family isn’t much different. Dottie is nuts as the virgin sister, standing naked and pigeon toed before a sexually repressed Detective Joe in one of the movie’s more uncomfortable scenes. The scene reflects the widespread and under-reported sexual abuse that happens in America’s domestic landscape, as well as its effect on society at large. Indeed, the “date” scene is one of the few moments in the film that reveals Joe Cooper to be vulnerable, depicting his discomfort and residual frustration while listening to Dottie’s memories of childhood trauma. He quickly and aggressively changes the subject, asking her to put on a black dress, escaping his own feelings by controlling the actions of others. It becomes apparent that these characters share similar psychological issues, but the social leverage created by age and power posit a complete devastation of morals committed by Joe towards the Smith family. Although everyone in the family is up for plenty of misdeeds and rotten amorality, it is McConaughey’s deliberately physical performance that lingers to sinister effect here. Notice the way he walks around a room, slowly calculating not only his words but the environment itself, checking to make sure everything is exactly as it should be, eyes intense and exerting absolute control at all times.
The tightness and coherence of Killer Joe‘s structure cannot be understated. It weaves its way through its sickening plot with grace, while including a plenitude of seemingly mundane details that enhance characterization while efficiently raising the suspense level as the story runs its course towards the nasty climax. An example of this kind of cyclical plot device can be seen when Detective Joe manipulatively turns off the television each time he enters the Smith family’s house. Near the end of the film, we are expecting him to yet again turn off the television as he walks towards it, but instead he picks it up and smashes it on the ground, signaling the beginning of his most overtly heinous act in the film and establishing his right to complete dominance over the family. Another sublimely subtle connection occurs when Digger playfully mentions his reluctance to stay away from fried chicken right before he orders his biker-goons to beat Chris to a bloody pulp. It foreshadows the upcoming shock-scene quite nicely. It’s clear that Digger, Joe, and Rex (Chris’s mom’s boyfriend, flaunting a loud yellow Corvette) represent the American business/ruling class in the film, and the Smith family can be seen as the desperate underclass willing to forsake morality, dignity, and intelligence to survive their hopeless economic state. As in Friedkin’s Bug, the main characters are desperate to the point of delusion, only this time their vile acts of familial betrayal for the sake of capital stretch them into larger representations of disintegration, stagnation, and ignorance. We feel some sympathy for Chris, who is shown as being slightly justified in his attempts to shield his sister from Joe, a fact highlighted to amplify the downright anarchic ending. McConaughey completely elevates himself as an actor in the ending of this film, gleefully abandoning his accumulated social precisions to expressions of ecstatic sexual bliss as he brutalizes the family. Church makes us smirk while we are watching horrific violence by acting oblivious to it, even while participating in it. One final and devastating note is dropped before the credits that implies these cycles of violence and stupidity will continue. It may be some time before I get hungry for fried chicken again.
Killer Joe was adapted from his own play by Pulitzer prizewinning playwright Tracy Letts.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…lurches from realism to corn-pone absurdism and exploitation-cinema surrealism. Such lurching isn’t necessarily bad and could have proved entertaining. Yet… it feels as if Mr. Friedkin is consistently controlled by the story’s excesses rather than in control of them.”–Manohla Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by “e.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)