By Alan Pyke
“He doesn’t catch the bird, okay?” Emile Hirsch’s character screams at his sister in the last relatively calm moment before Killer Joe descends all the way into the filth it’s been building toward for an hour. He’s frustrated because she is staring at a Roadrunner cartoon over his shoulder instead of listening to him. Chris is the closest to a sympathetic male character in the movie, but he is still enforcing the story’s only real rule: Listen to the men and do as they say, or they’ll find a way to make you fall in line. Over the course of the film, the enforcement of that code builds to an astonishing, grotesque climax.
That mounting pressure is captivating even as it horrifies, thanks to Matthew McConaughey’s shapeshifting Robert Mitchum-like charisma, an excellent counterpoint performance from Juno Temple, and gorgeous cinematography full of rusting Texas dilapidation.
Those are about the only things I can say with certainty about Killer Joe, the new William Friedkin movie opening Friday. Beyond that, it’s a dark, often hilarious, and thoroughly subversive mess. Friedkin’s adaptation of Tracy Letts’ violent, manipulating play builds a rhythm of pitch-black humor in its first hour, then dares you to keep watching as the titular murderer shifts from seductive to sadistic. The MPAA’s ratings may feel arbitrary, but flicks like this are why “NC-17” exists.
The particulars: Chris (Hirsch) has an idea that is, by the standards of doomed crime-scheme movies, fairly straightforward. He wants to hire a local detective who moonlights as a contract killer to get rid of his loathed mother. He needs the money from her insurance policy to wipe out his debt to a local drug distributor after she pinched the coke fronted to him by the distributor. His father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) doesn’t have any money to lend him to pay Joe’s (Matthew McConaughey) advance fee, though, so when the detective-cum-hitman suggests Chris’s young sister Dottie (Juno Temple) could function as a “retainer,” Chris assents. The offscreen machinations of Chris’s stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) threaten to hijack the whole messy business.
Killer Joe revolves around men who treat the women in their lives as levers to power — “chess pieces” would imply intelligence, which Chris and Ansel lack. Joe, whose savvy and witness-stand formality of speech suggest he’s a pretty skilled detective when he’s not killing people, is no better. He suggests that Dottie’s virginity (and indefinite use of her body) will tide him over until payday, but are Chris and Ansel any less disgusting for quickly agreeing even if they don’t abuse her themselves? If anything, the film makes them out a little worse: neither man can bring himself to explain the arrangement to Dottie, even though she knows and approves of the murder they’re buying with her body. When Joe shows up as Chris and Ansel hurry out the trailer door, it’s been left to him to explain (indirectly), and to calm a crying Dottie (which he does with alarming ease). The ensuing dinner and sex scene are the first real hint you get of just how much this movie enjoys daring you to keep watching. It’s a deeply creepy and coercive thing happening, but as Dottie succumbs to Joe’s dominating charisma she seems, at least somewhat, to enjoy herself. The film doesn’t do anything to help you decide how to feel about that. It’s a calculated, exploitative experiment in audience manipulation, and together with the preceding talk of Dottie as a form of capital, it helps finally establish that there might be somebody to root for in all this mess.
It’s Gershon’s character– first seen bottomless in a waist-down shot in the movie’s opening minutes– who is subjected to the film’s most revoltingly exploitative action in the final act. It’s a moment that goes beyond violence, the most upsetting bit of felatio I’ve seen on screen since The Shield. It comes right after her twofold betrayal of the trio of main male characters is revealed by Joe, as though to position her as somehow deserving of what he’s about to subject her to. But the luxurious sadism of it is almost impossible to stomach. And the awfulness of that scene is even harder to grapple with after the film’s first two acts condition you to dark laughter at the main characters’ casual consideration of murder and the jovial conversation between Chris and his supplier before the latter has him savagely beaten. If your theatermates’ laughter at Black Swan made you uneasy, Killer Joe may unravel your faith in humanity for good. But maybe that’s the point.
What do you do with a beautifully-shot exploitation flick with clear cinematic ambitions and a rotten core? Friedkin seems to intentionally put the burden of that question on the viewer. How will you handle the jarring ambiguities this story conjures? That’s a kind of filmmaking I associate more with Michael Haneke (Cache, Funny Games) than with the director of The Exorcist and The French Connection. (The story is reminiscent of the Coen Brothers, from the location to the relatively small payout that drives the characters, but the filmmaking sensibility is much closer to Haneke.) There’s no easy way out here, though there’s a possible escape route in the way Dottie’s character is presented as innocent and victimized, but not docile or expectant of rescue. The role requires Temple to move between childlike, as when she describes Joe to her stepmom in the linear, oddly detailed way that kids tell stories, and a kind of guarded savvy about the machinations around her. She’s convincing in each mode, and establishes a consistent facial blankness that binds the two extremes into one person in a believable way.
What kind of heroine is Dottie, though, if she is one? The phrase “white trash pixie dream girl” kept shooting into my head. She runs hot and cold, simplistic or sophisticated, depending on what’s most convenient for the story at a particular moment, sometimes fixating on an episode of “Roadrunner,” other times proving herself more perceptive than her family realizes. The film’s finale pretends to reclaim the preceding ugliness by putting power in her hands instead of between her legs, and by putting her in control instead of making her a commodity for louts and villains. But by flicking her agency and higher brain functions off and on at will, the film treats Dottie in much the same way that her relations do. Her faux-empowerment in the finale is a feint, part of the larger project of forcing you to confront your reactions to what’s happening on-screen.