Killer Joe may be a great film, but it’s not a particularly good one. Does that make sense? It’s as if the enormous talent involved in front of and behind the camera were trying so hard to act their hearts out (accomplished) and convey a story of rich thematic complexity (achieved) that they forgot to make the actual “movie” engaging enough to make you want to explore its many depths. They tried, that much is certain, but they seem to have mistaken audacity for genuine interest: Killer Joe earns its NC-17 by wallowing in its protagonists’ crapulence, but in the process sacrifices their ability to behave in a way that’s actually interesting.
William Friedkin, still talented, has demonstrated a superior command of this balance before. In films like The Exorcist or To Live and Die in L.A. he directed dramatically satisfying genre pictures that withheld the easy answers. The films were entertaining enough that repeat viewings weren’t just necessary, they were desired. Regan MacNeil’s head spun around and spewed projectile vomit, but it was in service of a relatable narrative about a mother fearing for the safety of her child, and doing everything in her power – even expanding her faith in an increasingly secular society – to protect her.
The cast of Killer Joe is, in comparison, thoroughly unpleasant. There’s nothing wrong with that, since that’s what noirs do, but in the case of this particular film it leaves nothing to latch onto. Emile Hirsch plays a hapless drug dealer who owes money to the Texas mob, who hatches a plan to murder his mother (who put him in this mess to begin with) along with his father, her divorced husband, Thomas Haden Church. They’re not smart enough to do the deed themselves, barely smart enough to hire outside help, and stupid enough to bother him without having the money up front.
That man is “Killer” Joe Cooper, played with a quiet intensity by Matthew McConaughey, and he steals the movie as the only character with a lick of common sense. But like his broadly white trash cohorts, he too succumbs to his base desires and breaks his very well reasoned rules: he’ll do the job, but until the money comes through he’ll take Hirsch’s sister as a deposit. That sister, played by the always-wonderful Juno Temple, may be a young woman but seems trapped in the kind of childhood persona so often sexualized in pornographic entertainment. Joe cannot resist her charms, and despite initial reticence she gives in to his advances, perhaps recognizing Joe as, ironically, the only person in her life who treats her as a woman as opposed to a possession that requires constant, selfishly motivated protection.
Killer Joe’s characters are almost uniformly of a ghoulish reality TV ilk; their actions are so simpleheaded that they inspire derision, and they only capture our attention through their utter crassness. The first shot of Gina Gershon is of her vagina, and it doesn’t get much classier from there. Although it successfully illustrates the volatility of their circumstances, the outlandishness on display is sporadic enough that it never achieves a state of relatable normalcy. They’re too dimwitted to provide much in the way of actual interest, and the murder subplot is familiar enough that it doesn't require much screen time, so Friedkin is too frequently forced to rely on sheer trashiness and sexual disturbia to keep the audience’s attentions.
Killer Joe is based on a play by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Letts, who also adapted the screenplay. Despite the relatively few locations, the real indication that Killer Joe has live theater origins is the deliberate pacing of the exchanges. Scenes begin at the beginning and end at the end, which might sound like common sense but in some respects breaks traditional screenwriting rules. The benefit is an increased emphasis on the characters, whose gears can always be seen in motion, although some more slowly than others. The climax, which includes a fried chicken scene certain to go down in infamy, unfolds in terrifying real time.
So it’s certainly a memorable film, Killer Joe, and my initial reaction was more positive, but the aspects that linger after the credits roll – McConaughey’s performance, yes, but mostly its outlandish nudity and discomforting sexual liaisons – have less to do with the film’s substance, characters or storyline than with its patina of bold nerve. Which is a shame, since the deeper you plunge into Killer Joe, the more interesting questions it raises about morality and the constant struggle between chaos and pragmatism. It announces its presence and demonstrates canny thematic sensibilities, but provides so many distractions that it discourages genuine investment. Like I said: it may be great… but it’s not very good.