When Matthew McConaughey first struts into Killer Joe as the titular renegade-detective-for-hire, the editing dissects him as a carefully composed individual. Close-ups on various parts of his ensemble compartmentalize him, including the obligatory but encapsulating wide-brimmed hat. Long and black, it can consume and mask Joe’s face in the kind of shadow that comes to reign metaphorically over the film as a whole. Killer Joe is a darkly comic crime saga of dumb, unlikable people doing horrible things to each other; it’s a succulent bit of Southern shlock that affords plenty of opportunity for director William Friedkin and his talented cast to show just how hideous they can get. It’s more fun than it has any right to be, if you don’t mind despising every character on the screen.
Killer Joe is Friedkin’s second collaboration with playwright Tracy Letts, who penned the play the movie is adapted from as well as the screenplay for Friedkin’s 2007 film Bug. While Killer Joe is tonally different from that reality-questioning psychological thriller, it is similar in its claustrophobia, its lingering sense of evil, and its grounding in pulpy narratives driven by actors navigating the space between completely serious and mentally unhinged. After this second collaboration Friedkin and Letts feel like kindred spirits, respecting each other’s craft while bringing out the best in each other.
The spiral of violence begins when drug peddler Chris (Emile Hirsch) decides he needs to kill his mother after she takes the cocaine he was supposed to sell, making it impossible to pay back the $6,000 he owes a small-town drug boss. He enlists his father (Thomas Haden Church), stepmother (Gina Gershon), and teenage sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), to help hire Joe and, after the deed is done, split his mother’s life insurance policy. Because they cannot pay Joe until they acquire the insurance, they let him hold Dottie as a retainer. Things predictably don’t go as planned. Killer Joe has a lot in common with financial-schemes-gone-awry films from Double Indemnity to Fargo, and it welcomes its similarities with these films instead of trying to feel overtly original. It embraces itself as a meticulous, grating, and thoroughly gruesome little genre piece—gruesome both in terms of what the characters are willing to do to each other and the graphic level the violence eventually reaches.
Killer Joe is perhaps most interesting not as a crime movie but as an act of adaptation. The opening titles read: “William Friedkin’s film of Tracy Letts’s Killer Joe,” displaying a reverence for source material that is usually reserved for A-list literary adaptations. A tracking shot in the opening scene travels slowly through the family’s trailer, carefully outlining the space and lingering on the mise-en-scene to set up the orientation of this crucial setting. Nearly every major scene takes place in the trailer, and the flimsiness of its physical construction almost makes it seem like an artificial set full of props.
Friedkin’s direction preserves a sense of theatricality in much of the staging and acting, giving room for long shots that showcase formally interesting blocking, such as in a final family dinner that goes to the proverbial depths of hell. He also adapts the inherent theatricality of the screenplay into more intimate, cinematic exchanges—especially between McConaughey and Temple, whom the former seduces over the course of an erotically polite dinner of tuna casserole. The film balances a delicate formal precision that rarely detracts from Friedkin’s obvious admiration for Letts’s script. The deep blue hues of many nighttime scenes work toward the chilling and foreboding feeling of the film, while the camera tracking shots work to encase the actors inside the spaces they occupy.
Beyond its rich and well-staged visuals, Killer Joe is a film full of great sounds. From the dull white noise of the family’s television to a tinny radio Joe uses to try to set the mood for seduction to a few rattling gunshots toward the film’s end, every second crackles because of the sounds both within and without—every aural element feels well placed, even in moments of sparse near-silence.
Killer Joe is at its heart a film about discomfort. It knows that you know that the horribly simple plan Chris cooks up will backfire in his face. Where the film delights is in probing how badly you want to see him get everything wrong. While the final scene preys on sustained violent and sexual humiliation of the main characters, as well as a downpour of bloodletting, the majority of the film is actually quite restrained. The part of Killer Joe Cooper almost screams to be overplayed, to let McConaughey run wild and chew the scenery to mush. Instead, he’s calm, reserved, calculated. The terror of the character comes in the threat of what he could do at any given moment more than what we actually see him do.
McConaughey, his eyes almost bugging out from his skull, acts like he has his fist wound tightly around Joe’s darkest impulses. His portrayal of maddening restraint makes Joe’s eventual eruption all the more terrifying. Part of the greatness of Friedkin’s filmmaking is his ability to move concrete storytelling into jarringly abstract space—think of Gene Hackman wandering aimlessly at the end of The French Connection or Regan’s room at the end of The Exorcist. So, too, does Joe, and the set around him, devolve into a kind of chaotic abstraction, a symbol of the violence Chris and his family have chosen to enact circling back onto them.
But though I might sound like I am describing a horror movie, Killer Joe is actually anything but. While it has some disturbing and shocking images, it’s far more toward the dark-comedy end of the tonal spectrum. And when I say dark, I mean blacker than midnight on a moonless night, to quote Twin Peaks. The film dares you to laugh and makes you feel uncomfortable when you do. Between Church’s empty deadpans, Temple’s overly sexualized innocence, and a few weird maneuvers with a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Killer Joe elicits plenty of laughs out of sheer awkwardness, as if trying to provoke you to combine laughter and shock into some off-putting synthesis of emotions.
I won’t go so far as to say Killer Joe is a masterwork—its plunge into the deep end of black humor ends up feeling rather slight even as it feels effortless and creative. It’s certainly a cornerstone of Matthew McConaughey’s reinvention and resurgence over the last year, and it equally shows William Friedkin’s directorial energy revitalized in this leg of his career. (Despite his early career success with The French Connection and The Exorcist, Friedkin probably hasn’t generated a universally acclaimed movie since 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A.). It almost seamlessly pulls off walking the wire between being genuinely hilarious and incredibly repulsive at the same time. And that’s no easy feat.
James Gilmore is currently an M.A. student in UCLA’s Cinema and Media Studies program. He received his B.A. in Film and Media Studies from the University of South Carolina. His research chiefly focuses on how films and other forms of media work to construct, critique, or challenge perceptions of the Nation. He also writes about genre, visual analysis, adaptation, and film history. You can follow his mostly sarcastic observations on Twitter @Jim_on_Film.