‘Killer Joe’ Review
No one will ever accuse director William Friedkin (‘The Exorcist’) of mellowing with age. His newest film, ‘Killer Joe,’ is an unrepentant celebration of sleaze that is downright quaint in its blithe attitude toward morals, purpose or restraint. It is, depending on your world view, a breath of fresh air or a harbinger of our eroded sense of ethical responsibility.
I’ll go with the former.
I was in from the very first scene when a young, hot-headed hick played by Emile Hirsch is banging on the double-wide trailer belonging to his father. The door opens and – blam – there it is, front and center, the naked (and rather hirsute) aging-and-not-caring Gina Gershon.
Upon admonishments to the tune of “you come to the door with your damn [expletive] hanging out?!?” she gives the perfect response. “I didn’t know it was you!”
Loud, furious and full of monosyllabic obscenity is the only way to communicate here. It is ostensibly the home of Ansel, the slack-jawed dunce played with joyous verve by Thomas Haden Church, but the center of gravity is his trampy girlfriend played by a swinging-for-the-fences Gershon. Squirreled away in the back you’ll find the is-she-or-isn’t-she angelic (and underage?) daughter played quite mysteriously by Juno Temple. Hirsch is a frequent couch-dweller, though, often kicked out of his mother’s (Church’s ex) home either for slapping her or talking back to her new husband, the cuckolded Rex.
This night, however, the latest quarrel has led Mama to flush Hirsch’s newest batch of drugs, the very ones he’s tasked to sell for the local Texas mafia. Now he’s in for six grand and needs to find money fast before he’s killed.
Since he’s an idiot, his scheme to bump off his no-good mother and scoop up some of the insurance money that is in Juno Temple’s name. He’s heard of a crooked cop, Killer Joe, who can do the job and make it look like an accident. After a night at the local strip club (featuring the most egregious upskirt shot I’ve seen off the Internet) he convinces his dopey Dad to go along.
Enter Matthew McConaughey in the part he – and not Nicolas Cage – was born to play. A big swaggering alpha male who is just a little bit cracked in the head and has a streak of sexual perversity that, I swear, will raise the eyebrows of even our porn-saturated youth.
Killer Joe refuses to bump off Mama without money up front, but he’s willing to accept the blonde, nubile Temple as a “retainer.” The family’s willingness to pimp out the young girl is just one of a series of queasy scenes, especially since it is ambiguous whether she’s mildly retarded. (Mama once tried to smother her with a pillow and she “wasn’t anymore” for a few minutes.)
Temple’s performance rides the line, though. One minute she’s spinning to calliope music in her head, the next she’s keenly aware of the insurance scam everyone is plotting. It is implied that she and Killer Joe are both the victims of childhood sexual abuse, bond over this in a non-verbal way and that their relationship (thank God) is consensual. (Then there are the images of her practicing nude kung fu – I don’t know what that’s about.)
Suffice it to say, you get a bunch of lunatics like this in a trailer and it isn’t going to go well. The conclusion reminded me of the best of David Lynch mixed with the Coen Brothers’ ‘Blood Simple.’ Clarence Carter’s filthy R&B bopper ‘Strokin” plays over the closing credits and it ranks with anything Tarantino has ever served up on his soundtracks.
If you really, really wanted to you could glean some rich criticism about greed and the American family from ‘Killer Joe.’ And I’m sure Friedkin is glad it’s in there. That is clearly secondary, however, to the surface satisfaction of an engrossing yarn about idiots getting in over their head, acting horribly to one another and festering a pool of sex and violence. It isn’t so much “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” but rather “people of genuine craft don’t make ‘em like this anymore.” And, man, when they do, is it fun.‘Killer Joe’ hits theaters on July 27
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.