Movie: Killer Joe (2011)

I neither liked nor disliked Matthew McConaughey prior to seeing the first season of True Detective.  Like seemingly 95% of the population, I definitely started paying attention to him starting with that series.  His Rust Cohle was a deeply intriguing character with hints of darkness near the surface of a calm, controlled exterior.

His murderer-for-hire police officer in 2011’s Killer Joe seems like an early attempt at the Cohle character he would later play, except the darkness is in the open this time.  In an inversion of his role on True Detective, the sudden outbursts of violence here are entirely self-serving instead of being used to achieve justice when laws and regulations are too restrictive.

McConaughey has been hired by Emile Hirsch to kill his mother.  Because of her actions, Hirsch is out $6000 to vicious drug dealers.  He has learned about her life insurance policy, which is to pay $50,000 to his sister, Dottie.  After the fee for McConaughey’s services, there’s $25,000 left to cover the debt to the dealers and spend on God only knows what.  But Hirsch doesn’t have $25,000 to pay for the killer’s services up-front, so McConaughey decides to take Dottie as collateral. 

Dottie is played by Juno Temple in a fascinating and disturbing performance.  Something is mentally wrong with her, though the nature and extent is unclear.  It may be related to her allegation her mother tried to suffocate her when she was a baby, but she also claims she can vividly remember that, which seems unlikely.  She’s not so out of it that she is oblivious to the plan being concocted around her: “I heard y’all talk about killin’ mama.  I think it’s a good idea.”

In general, the things she says throughout this are intriguing, as they tend to be a tad cryptic, such as what she says to Hirsch when she startles him outside a truck window at night: “Did you build this city all by yourself?”

Temple is in fine physical form here, as well.  That’s something I wouldn’t normally single out in an essay, except it makes for some deeply unsettling moments.  We’ll see quite a lot of her body, and that’s not when various glimpses of it aren’t being teased by her skimpy clothing.  And yet, in a moment where she is about to be deflowered, she reveals the age she thinks she is to be twelve

In addition to Temple, everybody else in this picture is readily on-board with having her mother executed.  The only person who is even momentarily reluctant is Thomas Haden Church as her ex-husband, and father of Hirsch and Temple.  His character is the broadest caricature, but also provides some welcome moments of genuine comic relief.  He’s like a walking Dawin Award, a baffling fatality waiting to happen.  One can easily imagine him dying in a manner that would be picked up by news agencies as the kind of story people guiltily chuckle over and then mentally file away as a precautionary tale.

His current wife is played by Gina Gershon in what is a thankless performance in many ways.  When we first see her, we see only her dense patch of public hair.  This is what her son-in-law suddenly finds directly in his face when she comes to the trailer door sans pants.  In addition to obviously being comfortable with her body, Gershon also appears to be willing to take on such deeply reprehensible characters as this one.  But no matter how despicable her character may be, it is still shocking to witness the extreme and bizarre humiliation she endures in the climactic scene.

This lengthy set-piece is the only scene in the movie that betrays its origins as a stage play.  Set entirely in the combined kitchen and dining room of the trailer, I was stunned by how hard the material hit in what is the most artificial scene in appearance.  I can’t begin to imagine how the actors in the stage version did this scene night after night.  I can’t even imagine being in the audience watching a performance of it.

This film was originally released as a well-earned NC-17 and that was the version I watched.  Given the extent of violence, nudity, profanity and weirdly innovative grossness on display, I was most surprised by much humor is to be found.  Church is especially funny, playing a character so dense he would have fit in perfectly in Idiocracy.  There’s an especially solid laugh when he tugs an annoying loop of string at the shoulder of his suit jacket sleeve, which causes the sleeve to fall off. 

But this is really McConaughey’s show.  Just try to not look at him when he’s in the frame.  You dread the next random outburst of violence from him, while simultaneously afraid you’ll miss the moment.  In the end, I thought of him as being akin to Dracula here: once invited in, he will come and go as he pleases, taking whatever he wants and doing whatever he wants.  This is a man who says, “I’ll cut off your face and wear it over my own” and you believe it.

Killer Joe was helmed by William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist.  I think he was the right choice to bring this material to the screen.  His ability to shock was established a long time ago, but it is his humanity that makes this a success.  Almost everybody here is a horrible person to varying degrees, yet he never encourages us to root for their demise.  I dread to imagine what most other directors would have done with this material.

Dir: William Friedkin

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon

Watched on blu-ray