Title: Killer Joe
Year: 2011
Genre:  Crime, Drama, Thriller
Play time: 
Director: William Friedkin
Screenwriters: Tracy Letts
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple

Screened at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival.

Killer Joe is brought to life by its characters’ faces. Working with legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, director William Friedkin composes his shots so that the light bounces off the actors’ eyes, beguiling us to stare into them and see what we can see: Thomas Haden Church’s eyes, slack and weary; Matthew McConaughey’s, focused and cold; Juno Temple’s, naive and expectant; Emile Hirsch’s, darting, nervous, and scheming. At one point, a corpse shows up in the trunk of a car, and again the eyes are the first thing we notice, sad and resigned, as if their owner’s fate were just as well, and death not all that different from what came before.

The film is an astonishing high-wire act, improbably positioned somewhere along the axes of comedy, horror, and despair. It is the second consecutive collaboration between Friedkin and playwright Tracy Letts, whose memorably gonzo Bug has attained some measure of cult status after a swift disappearance from theaters in 2007.  Killer Joe offers a similar orgy of mutual self-destruction, but it is far more complex and — in its own strange, dark way — satisfying. Friedkin takes what could have been a case study in trailer-trash miserabilism and produces something riveting, compassionate, and truly singular.

It begins, at least, as familiar (if uncommonly profane) blue-collar noir: it’s pouring rain, and a young man named Chris (Hirsch) arrives at the trailer park home of his father (Church), his stepmother (Gina Gershon), and his sister (Temple), asking for money. It seems that Chris’s biological mother swiped his cocaine stash and used the proceeds to fix her car, and now he’s into some local Texas mobsters for a few thousand dollars that he most emphatically does not have. He hatches a plan: he’s heard tell that his mother has a fifty thousand dollar life insurance policy, and that his sister Dottie is the beneficiary. There’s a local hitman named Joe who will do the job for twenty thousand (or is it twenty-five?).

Joe is played by Matthew McConaughey as a quiet, calculating sort — a man whose genteel politeness morphs into steely menace at the drop of his black cowboy hat. (It’s easily the best performance of McConaughey’s career.) He’ll do the hit, but he gets paid in advance — no exceptions. Though he might agree to take some sort of non-monetary retainer if something were to strike his fancy.

What makes this work is the specificity with which the characters are drawn. They’re dirt-poor, and they’re not nice people, but nor are they repellent — Friedkin is not interested in a freak show. Church is physically unpleasant, with patchy chin hair that makes you want to hack at him with a set of clippers, but the hillbilly facade conceals a sad, reasonably shrewd man who has resigned to the world’s perception of him as a dumbass hick. Hirsch is intense and seemingly amoral, but we sense that Chris’s willingness to be vicious is how he’s stayed alive and sane. (The actor is outstanding here, frantic and desperate and hanging by a thread.) And Juno Temple’s Dottie, a little slow and thoroughly repressed, is in some ways the film’s Macguffin, and in other ways its heart.

The film is beautiful — stark, immersive, and otherworldly. The story ends up in a pretty extreme place (the cut I saw received an NC-17 rating, and very much deserves it), and there’s an argument that Letts’ screenplay gets a bit too self-consciously outré in the final scenes. But Friedkin never blinks, or suggests that any part of the movie is a joke. Killer Joe could have been disgustingly exploitative, but it’s not — because what happens here matters deeply to these characters. They convince us of this. You can see it in their eyes.

Eugene Novikov

Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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