I nearly didn’t get to see Killer Joe.
Killer Joe, the latest film from William Friedkin (who, 40 years ago, won an Oscar for directing The French Connection), is rated NC-17 for “graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality.” That, more than anything, was why I wanted to see Killer Joe. I wanted to see just how extreme a film starring Matthew McConaughey could possibly be. However, I also knew that the NC-17 rating would mean that I would have to show my ID before being allowed to have my mind corrupted. See, I might be 26 years old but most people seem to assume that I’m 17. That is, until I speak. At that point, they usually realize that they’ve guessed incorrectly and decide that I’m actually 15.
Sure enough, when me and my BFF Evelyn bought our tickets to see Killer Joe earlier this week, I was asked to show my ID. Smiling my sweetest smile, I held up my driver’s license. I was expecting that the ticker seller would just glance at the ID and then say, “Thank you,” but instead, he literally appeared to be studying my picture. His eyes shifted from the license to me and back to the license. I was starting to get nervous because, after all, it’s not like I was trying to get through airport security. I just wanted to see a forbidden movie.
Behind me, I heard Evelyn say, “That looks like a fake to me.”
“Ha ha,” I cleverly replied.
Evelyn responded with, “I don’t trust her. Maybe you guys should strip search her…”
Finally, the ticket seller looked away from my driver’s license and, as he handed me my ticket, he told us that the theater’s management had instructed him to make sure that we understood that we were about to see an explicitly violent film. He also told us that there were free donuts available at the concession stand. That was nice of him.
So, after all that, I finally got to see the forbidden film Killer Joe and you know what? Killer Joe earns its NC-17 rating, not so much because it’s any more exploitive than any other mainstream film released this year but because it’s actually honest about being an exploitation film. Killer Joe may be playing in the arthouses but it’s a grindhouse film and proud of it.
Killer Joe takes place in my hometown of Dallas (though it was filmed in New Orleans) and it features perhaps the sleaziest group of losers that you’ll find on a movie screen this year. Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a drug dealer who lives with his mother and who moves, talks, and thinks with the scrambled energy of a meth addict. His father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) is an affably stupid alcoholic who lives in a trailer park with his second wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon, who gives a ferociously good performance here) and his daughter, 16 year-old Dottie (Juno Temple). Dottie is a spacey girl who is given to sleep walking and who doesn’t appear to be quite all there. Chris is creepily overprotective of her and, though it’s never implicitly stated, it quickly becomes obvious that there’s a rather disturbing subtext to her relationship with both Chris and her father.
Chris has managed to get into debt with some local criminals but he’s got a plan. As he explains to Ansel, his mother has got a sizable life insurance policy and if she dies, the money will go to Dottie. Chris and Ansel hire a hitman to carry out the murder for them. That hitman is Joe (Matthew McConaughey, giving the performance of his career), a demonic charmer who always dresses in black and who has a day job as a homicide detective. When Chris and Ansel explain that they don’t have the money to pay him in advance, Joe agrees to take Dottie as a retainer.
Soon, Joe is living in the trailer park with Dottie, Chris is getting brutally beaten up every time he goes out in the daylight, and the murder doesn’t seem to be any closer to actually happening. When Joe finally does make his move, it all leads to a lot of very brutal violence, a series of betrayals, and a very disturbing scene involving a drumstick from Kentucky Fried Chicken. As I said before, Killer Joe earns that NC-17.
William Friedkin, who has had a rather uneven career, dives right into the film’s sordid atmosphere. The majority of the film takes place in that Hellish trailer park and Friedkin perfectly captures the feeling of a society made up of people who are trapped by their own lack of intelligence, imagination, and status. There’s been a lot of films made about white trash but Killer Joe gets it right, creating an all too believable Hell where everyone can afford to buy a pit bull but not a decent suit (or, in the case of Dottie, a bra). When the violence does come, Friedkin doesn’t shy away from showing it nor does he try to pretend that violence doesn’t have consequences. When people get hurt in Killer Joe, they stay hurt.
Matthew McConaughey is a wonder as Killer Joe. Whereas many actors would tend to go overboard with such a psychotic character (and you’d be justified in expecting McConaughey to go overboard as well), McConaughey is actually rather restrained for most of the film. The power of his performance comes from the fact that, while everyone else is going crazy, McConaughey is subdued and steady. It’s only when he speaks to Dottie that we get a few clues of just what exactly it is that lurks beneath Killer Joe’s coolly professional manner. It’s only towards the end of the film that McConaughey allows his performance to get a bit more showy but, by that point, the entire film has gone to such an extreme that Joe still seems almost sensible.
Killer Joe, however, is not a perfect film. Though the film is set in North Texas (and, in fact, the Texas-setting is pretty important to the film’s overall plot), it was filmed in Louisiana. Speaking as someone who has lived in both of those fine states, trust me when I say that, visually, there’s a huge visual difference between Texas and Louisiana. (Evelyn and I shared a laugh when we spotted Palm Trees in the film’s version of Dallas.)
While the clumsy use of Louisiana as a stand-in for Texas probably won’t be noticeable to anyone outside of the Southwest, a far more noticeable problem with Killer Joe is that the film is based on a stage play and, despite some efforts to open up the action, the film still basically feels rather stagey. This is the type of movie where people tend to deliver semi-poetic monologues about their childhood at the drop of a (cowboy) hat. To a certain extent, the staginess made it easier to handle the film’s violence (and perhaps that was Friedkin’s intention) but, at other times, it just caused the action to drag.
Ultimately, Killer Joe is a film that I would recommend with reservations. It’s definitely not for everyone and I don’t know that it’s a film that I’ll ever want to sit through again (seriously, I’ll be surprised if I ever manage to eat another drumstick) but it is a movie worth seeing. If nothing else, it’s the closest were going to get to a true grindhouse film this year.