You have to respect a film that goes completely bonkers. It doesn’t mean the movie becomes good, or every shortcoming is instantly forgiven. But if a movie’s going to fail, then you hope that it fails in a spectacular fashion. The true fiascos aren’t just train wrecks. They’re train wrecks that were hit by an atomic bomb. Up until the last twenty minutes, William Freidkin’s Killer Joe looks like it will just be a disappointing movie. It’s not tightly twisted enough to be an effective crime film, and it’s not funny enough to be a dark comedy, and the only saving grace is Matthew McConaughey’s performance. But then the train goes off the tracks, the warhead comes crashing down, and you have to tip your glass to the madness.
Chris (Emile Hirsch) owes some criminals $6,000 because his mother Adele took the coke he as going to sell and sold it herself. To pay back his bosses before they murder him, he and his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Chruch) conspire to kill Chris’ mother and Ansel’s ex-wife to collect her $50,000 life insurance policy which will go to Ansel’s daughter and Chris’ little sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). They’ve been told about Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) a detective in the Dallas Police Department who moonlights as a hired killer. Chris and Ansel don’t have Joe’s $25,000 fee up front so the hitman agrees to a retainer: he gets Dottie, who mentally isn’t quite all there. Ansel and Chris agree to pimp out their underage family member but complications arise in getting the money, Chris’ last-minute crisis of conscience, and the unsurprising fact that Joe is a total psychopath.
Killer Joe features a cast of grotesque figures who get uglier with every passing scene, and that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker. There have been plenty of great noir dramas featuring despicable people and they work because the story coalesces around the characters rather than letting them fester. Friedkin chooses to let the protagonists of Killer Joe rot like roadkill. No one in this film has dreams or hopes. Chris’ biggest aspiration is to not be murdered so he can go back to his shitty life and future mistakes. He’s not a doomed and tragic hero. He’s white trash that will one day be found in a landfill. Ansel is dimwitted and resigned to his crappy life and his wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) is a slutty bitch.
Friedkin doesn’t know how to build a movie around these characters and so the plot slumps along with its only energy coming from McConaughey and a few snippets of dark comedy. Killer Joe allows the actor to go full-bore psycho but in way that puts his romantic charms to sinister use. McConaughey usually gets cast as the lothario because he projects an easy-going, seductive charm. That quality gets perverted and twisted to excellent results in the character of Joe Cooper. The only other life in the film comes from brief moments of dark comedy, most of which are courtesy of Church’s deadpan delivery. The opening scene hints that the black humor will run throughout the entire movie, but like noir tone, it sputters throughout the bland narrative.
Until the end when everything goes insane. This is where spoilers happen so you may want to stop reading since I can’t talk around the ending. Ready? OK: Joe cooly uncovers that the plot to kill Chris’ mother was devised by Sharla so Sharla could run-off with Adele’s ex-boyfriend Rex. After Sharla finally confesses, Joe punches the woman in the nose and her face explodes with blood. The family was about to sit down for a nice meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken (or “K Fried C” so as not to get sued to hell and back) and Joe proceeds to take a drumstick, places it in front of his pants zipper so that it becomes a phallic substitute, and forces Sharla to suck his fried chicken. Crying her eyes out with blood streaming down her face and Joe threatening to kill her if she doesn’t comply, Sharla fellates a KFC drumstrick while Joe moans in ecstasy. The Colonel would be proud.
After this disturbing and hilariously awful scene, Joe demands that the family set the table and that they will all dine together once Chris comes home. Once Chris arrives, gun tucked into his pants with the intent to steal Dottie away and escape to Peru, Joe asks that they say grace. Friedkin, completely lost and trying to close his movie with any effect no matter how ill-conceived, decides to throw in a gigantic religious angle that has never been alluded to until this point in the story. Then the dinner scene erupts into violence, Sharla and Ansel try to kill Chris, his gun falls to the floor, Dottie picks it up and kills Chris, mortally wounds Ansel, and then aims the weapon at Joe before informing him that she’s going to have a baby. Then the movie ends.
Up until the ending, Killer Joe was just a slightly better version of Hick. They both have a sexualized teenage blonde and the psychotic man in the black Stetson who wants to deflower her, all wrapped up in southern accents (at least McConaughey’s is genuine) and crappy small towns. Before its ending, Friedkin’s film had stronger performances and a sturdier sense of tone, but it was just as dull and plodding. But then Killer Joe went absolutely nuts and while its bombastic ending in no way improves the overall film, it at least stopped me from forgetting the movie entirely.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my TIFF 2011 reviews so far: