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Catching Up on 2012: Killer Joe (Unrated)

I don’t know what exactly I was expecting when I sat down to watch William Friedkin’s latest film, Killer Joe.  A violent crime caper, I guess.  And that is indeed what I got, though the film is far more twisted and disturbed than I had ever expected.  Whether that is a good or a bad thing depends on your mileage, I guess!

When we first meet the trailer-park-dwelling Chris (Emile Hirsch) and his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), they are plotting the death of Chris’ mother, Ansel’s ex-wife, so they can claim the money from her life-insurance policy.  Chris has heard of a guy, Joe (Matthew McConaughey) — a policeman and also contract-killer — who he thinks they can hire to do the deed.  Chris and Ansel think they can pay Joe with a portion of the insurance money, but Joe demands payment in advance.  Since Chris and Ansel are broke, they obviously can’t pay, so Joe suggests an alternative: let him take Chris’ young sister, Dottie (Juno Temple) as a “retainer.”  Chris and Joe agree, leading to what I thought (wrongly) would be the most disturbing scene in the movie: Joe’s “date” with young Dottie (whose age isn’t specified but who is certainly depicted as a young, innocent girl) that ends up in their having sex.  What follows is a series of double-crosses winding up in a tense confrontation between Joe and Chris, Ansel, and Ansel’s new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) in their trailer-park home, a scene even more horrifying than Joe’s date/seduction of Dottie.

There is much about Killer Joe that is impressive.  The cast is spectacular, each member of the ensemble turning in a fantastic performance.  Matthew McConaughey is the stand-out as the titular Killer Joe.  Mr. McConaughey is absolutely terrific, a true revelation in the role, presenting us with a character who is a stone-cold killer.  In many ways, Joe is completely inhuman, without any seeming semblance of heart or humanity.  He sees what he wants and he takes it, no remorse and no regret.  And yet, Dottie seems to spark a genuine emotion in him.  However repugnant Joe’s advances towards the much-younger Dottie might be (and they are mighty repugnant), one senses that Joe wants to attach himself to Dottie not just because he has lust for a young pretty girl, but because he feels a real connection with her.  That perhaps makes Joe an even more twisted character, but it also makes him a more interesting one.

Emile Hirsch is great as the troubled Chris, but it’s Thomas Haden Church as his father, the beaten-down Ansel, who really impresses.  Mr. Church brings to Ansel a woeful sense of powerful hopelessness, that of a dim bulb of a man who has just enough sense to know that he doesn’t have enough sense to make anything out of his mess of a life.  Gina Gershon’s introduction in the film is one that won’t soon be forgotten (a moment of nudity that was surely part of what earned the film its NC-17 rating upon its theatrical release) and she bites into the role of Sharla with relish.  Sharla, like Ansel, may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but unlike Ansel she has a fierceness to her, a Lady Macbeth-like desire to better her situation by any means necessary.  It’s a memorable performance, and Ms. Gershon’s portrayal of the hell Sharla goes through in the film’s climax (more on that in just a minute) is extraordinarily brave, far more so than most all of the performances that got attention during this year’s Oscars.  Juno Temple is also brave and memorable as young Dottie, portraying Dottie’s innocence with just enough of a twist to make us wonder what’s really going on inside Dottie’s head, and if maybe there isn’t more happening underneath than we might have at first suspected.

The film’s poster presents an image of a piece of bloody fried chicken in the shape of the state of Texas.  I am sort of stunned that the film’s poster is drawn from the most controversial, horrifying scene in the film.  But forget the poster, having seen Killer Joe through to the end I still can’t quite believe what I saw at the end of the film.  I don’t want to give too many details, both because I don’t want to overly horrify any readers with a gentle stomach, and also because I don’t want to spoil what was, to me, one of the most shocking and unexpected moments I have seen on film in a long time.  What I can say is that Sharla finds herself having angered Joe something fierce, and as a result Joe does something truly terrible to Sharla with a fried chicken wing.  On the one hand, it’s one of the most unpleasant, off-putting things I have ever seen in a movie.  As I just wrote, I still can’t quite believe that I saw what I saw.  On the other hand, I do have a sort of wild-eyed sense of admiration for the filmmakers, director, and actors, who have effectively put together a nightmarish sequence of film.  The performances given by Mr. McConaughey and Ms. Gershon are extraordinary, fierce and brave beyond what I would have imagined from either one of them.  It’s certainly not something I will soon forget.  (I guess whoever designed the poster felt the same way.)

I watched Killer Joe in the “Unrated” DVD edition.  I believe this is director William Friedkin’s preferred version of the film, the one that earned him such a scuffle with the ratings board.  The film is extremely well-directed, not surprising from the man who directed The Exorcist and The French Connection.  Mr. Friedkin has fallen from the heights of acclaim he had in the seventies, but a work like Killer Joe shows he is still a force to be reckoned with.  Whether you enjoy Killer Joe or whether its content horrifies you, I don’t think one can deny that this film demonstrates a director still working at the height of his powers.  I must admit to being very impressed.  As much as I enjoy so many of Mr. Friedkin’s earlier films, the last movie I saw that he directed was the terrible Rules of Engagement back in 2000.  I am thrilled to see that Mr. Friedkin still had such a powerful work in him as Killer Joe.

My biggest complaint about the film is the abrupt, in-the-middle-of-a-scene ending.  I had stuck with the film throughout all of the really tough-to-watch bits, and was surprised when the film smash-cut to the credits in the middle of what seemed to me to be the climactic scene.  I am not sure if that ending originated with the play (written by Tracy Letts, who also wrote the screenplay of the movie) or whether that was a creation of the filmmakers, but either way it seemed a bizarre choice to me, one that I did not at all understand.

For all that I have praised Killer Joe, I’m not sure how wholeheartedly I can recommend it.  While very well-made, the film’s story is pretty abhorrent, and though I wouldn’t suggest that Mr. Friedkin or any of the filmmakers want you to sympathize with any of the terrible things that the terrible people in the film do, watching those terrible things happen is rather difficult.  And that closing scene — wow.  Not for the faint of heart or easily offended, that’s for sure.  For myself, I am glad to have seen the film once, though I doubt it’s a film I will re-watch, at least not for a good long while.

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