Fairy tales weren’t always meant to placate small children, promising them castles in the sky and Prince Charmings to save them from having to do the dishes. At their root, fairy tales were meant to teach children valuable lessons – don’t talk to strangers, treat your elders with respect, don’t bite off more than you can chew. Fairy tales can be dark, twisted, scary things. Killer Joe, the latest film from director William Friedkin, is a deep-fried fairy tale, a primal warning and a hypnotizing thriller.
Based on a play by Tracy Letts, Killer Joe stars Emile Hirsch as Chris Smith, a luckless loser plodding along life to the irregular beat of his own drum. Owing money to people that he shouldn’t, Chris finds himself in the latest of a string of outs with his mother when he decides to hire Killer Joe Cooper, a predatory hitman played with palpable evil by Matthew McConaughey.
If Killer Joe’s job is simple – he must killer Smith’s mother so that Smith can collect the insurance money – his rules are even simpler: he must be paid up front. Things are never simple when it comes to murder, though, and – as it turns out – Smith doesn’t have the money up front. Killer Joe, in a rare example of his unsettling idea of generosity, is willing to make a one-time exception. He’ll do the deed but he demands a retainer – Smith’s 12-year-old sister Dottie.
Dottie is a spacy, childish girl who seemingly represents the only thing innocent in Smith’s life. Played by 22-year-old Juno Temple, Dottie looks older for her age but her childish behavior betrays her immaturity. It’s a good thing that Friedkin hired an older actress to play Dottie – watching a real life 12-year-old experience the horrors that Killer Joe’s script has in store for her would be too much to bare for the average audience member.
Rounding out the main cast are Thomas Haden Church as Ansel, Smith’s dim-witted father and accomplice in the murder plot, and Gina Gershon as Sharla, Smith’s white-trash step-mother. The cast assembled for Killer Joe is fantastic, perfectly inhabiting their characters and using the script’s broad, coarse strokes to nurture something genuine and primal. The script is a tough nut to crack – a sometimes blurry line between comedy and horror. Played perfectly straight, the audience shouldn’t be laughing as the characters tumble towards an unavoidable fate yet there’s something richly humorous about the film’s tight embrace of its darkness. Maybe it’s a tension releaser – the film never shies away from the gratuitous (whether it be violence, nudity or other, more heinous, taboos), the film keeps pushing and pushing until the audience, struggling for air, reaches out to the tiny bits of release it can find – a somber and satiric look at the ultimate in dysfunctional families.
Friedkin has not lost his touch when it comes to either his visuals or his use of actors. Friendkin, along with his director of photography Caleb Deschanel, heightens the film’s reality through heavy filters and stark lighting. Whether in a strip club, where the actors’ faces are washed out in a deep blue, or draining color from the scene via overpowering sunlight and, in the process, perfectly capturing the sweltering Texas heat in the film’s outdoor scenes, Friedkin gives his film a stark look that fits snuggly with the film’s darkly stoic tone.
The actors compliment the cinematography – also heightening the reality through their borderline caricature performances. These are not meant to be real people – these are totems fitting in with the fairy tale structure of the film. They are either beyond evil, beyond incompetent, beyond virginal or beyond corrupt. They are larger than life shadow puppets dancing across a cave wall and the actors sell this idea with enthusiasm. Thomas Haden Church, in many ways, is playing the ultimate version of his persona – slack-jawed and easy going. He’s the summation of his past roles, sharpened and shined.
McConaughey has had a good year when it comes to performances and Killer Joe is the cherry on top. Channeling the jagged-faced killer of a black-and-white noir or a Universal Studios monster played by Boris Karloff, McConaughey oozes danger. He is a monster through and through but – even through his sharp edges and sinister actions – there remains something seductive about his character. He is the only release Smith and his family has from their speeding train of doom. He is the dark angel waiting in the wings to end their suffering and whisk Dottie away into a better life. In that way, he is Rumpelstiltskin, the Big Bad Wolf, Dracula. He is the punishment awaiting a life misspent personified with a deep southern accent, a love for fried chicken and – most terrifying of all – a deep curiosity of those around him.
Killer Joe is a powerful film, like a punch to the ear. It does not blink in the face of ugliness – instead treating violence and even worse moral misdeeds as the mundane. It is a film without redeemable characters and without a happy ending. It is a movie that knows perfectly well how to unsettle and, using that knowledge, picks away at that loose thread in your mind like a cat at play. It’s a powerful film but it is an essential film for true lovers of the medium.
Director: William Friedkin
Writers: Tracy Letts, based on her stage play
Notable Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon and Thomas Haden Church