In a cautionary tale about the dangers of stage-to-screen adaptations, Killer Joe, the first play by Pulitizer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts (August: Osage County), becomes a lurid, overwrought hicksploitation flick in director William Friedkin’s new NC-17-rated adaptation. Assaultively disturbing without the justification of depth, and the kind of “funny” that will make the raucous laughter of your fellow audience members creep you out, Killer Joe is a fascinatingly ugly misfire only partially redeemed by a pair of very strong performances. Flawed, fatalistic, and foul, Killer Joe is not a film I can endorse. However—if you have a strong stomach and a prurient curiosity—it is definitely a film you will remember.
On a plot level, Killer Joe falls comfortably into the “stupid-people-try-to-commit-a-crime” sub-genre of such (superior) films as Fargo and A Simple Plan. Chris Smith (an over-matched Emile Hirsch) is a low-level, trailer-park drug dealer who owes $6,000 to someone higher up the chain of supply. Chris comes up with a plan to murder his own mother for her insurance policy, enlisting the help of his dull-witted father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), and Ansel’s trashy second-wife Sharla (Gina Gershon). To commit the crime itself, however, they enlist a professional: “Killer” Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a professional hitman.
Killer Joe, a polite, soft-spoken psychopath, has a certain way of doing things, and one of his policies is that he gets paid up front: he makes an exception, however, when he meets Dottie (Juno Temple), Chris’s sweet, simple-minded little sister. He agrees to take Dottie as a “retainer”—a sleazy, exploitative arrangement to which Chris and Ansel offer only token resistance. (“Maybe it’ll do her some good,” Ansel offers, pathetically.) And so Joe becomes a dark Prince Charming courting the innocent Cinderella, a sexually-perverse Gentleman Caller insinuating himself into the family to claim the damaged daughter.
It is whenever McConaughey is onscreen—and particularly in the scenes between Joe and Dottie—that Killer Joe comes to electrifying life. Though he’s seemingly been stuck in rom-com hell for the past decade, McConaughey has always been most effective when subverting his own natural charisma and southern charm with an undercurrent of darkness, whether in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, John Sayles’ Lone Star, or his recent turn in Soderbergh’s Magic Mike. (I didn’t see the latter, but my girlfriend did, commenting that Soderbergh’s direction must have been, “Do you, only darker.”) Now, at 43, he has grown into his movie star looks to the point where he is not relying on them, but able to use them intelligently as just one of several complex character layers: like Paul Newman (a star he resembles in many ways), he becomes a more interesting actor the older he gets. Here, the contrast between his polite charm and Joe’s barely contained psychopathy serves the duality of cop/criminal character well, and Joe becomes a near iconic distortion of the clichéd American western hero.
He is well-matched in Juno Temple, who has had small roles in films like Atonement and The Dark Knight Rises, but who gives a breakout performance here in a difficult, highly problematic role. Dottie is the film’s most “literary” character, more a device than a person: she is and remains something of a cypher, called on at various points to serve as innocent victim, erotic MacGuffin, femme fatale, manic pixie dream girl, and divine hand of retribution. It is an impossible role—and one at the center of some very troubling and clumsily navigated sexual politics—but the fact that Temple pulls it off as well as she does makes her a talent to watch.
Gershon and Church are both excellent as well: Church plays one of the dullest characters ever captured on film, a man so slow-witted and wearied that he can barely be bothered to react when his life and family begin blowing up around him. Gershon has the movie’s most demanding scene, as the film climaxes in a brutal physical assault and sick sexual humiliation.
And it is here, in the rushed, graphically violent final act, that Killer Joe goes completely off the rails, exploding from a tense crime drama into a stomach-churning campaign of shock and awfulness. The theater we attended seemed split right down the middle between people who found this final act nauseatingly horrible, and those who found it audaciously hilarious. I have rarely been as disturbed by an audience’s reaction as I was in these final scenes: uncomfortable laughter is, certainly, a valid response to some of the Grand Guignol wretchedness of Killer Joe, but it felt like there was, among some viewers, an apparently unabashed enjoyment of physical and sexual violence against women that made us linger in our seats after the show just to avoid rubbing elbows with our fellow audience members as they filed out.
We can argue that any film that provokes such a strong reaction is worth making, perhaps, and no work of art should be judged by how some audience members may react. But I would have felt better disposed to Killer Joe if I thought its shocks and provocations were handled more responsibly. Gershon is a trouper, to be sure, but I can’t help but feel that no one should put an actress through what she goes through here unless it’s in service of something more important than sick laughs and shock-based provocation. As it is, I simply don’t see enough value in Killer Joe to justify the extremes of exploitation that seem to be its only remarkable features.
And here is where I wonder if the entire project wasn’t ill-conceived. Friedkin has made some great movies (The Exorcist, The French Connection), some terrible ones (Jade), and a great many more in between. This is his second adaptation of a Tracy Letts work—after 2006’s fascinatingly unpleasant Bug—but I can’t help but feel he was the wrong director for this material. His natural, faux-realist technique removes the necessary layer of unreality that would have been present in a stage version, and which a more stylized director might have brought. (Someone like David Lynch, of course, could have done things with Killer Joe, or perhaps the Coen Brothers, whose Blood Simple Letts acknowledges as in influence on his play.) Absent a more stylized tone, or the heightened theatricality of a stage performance, Killer Joe feels a little sleazy and shallow.
I haven’t seen Killer Joe on stage, but I have no trouble imagining that it would be a viscerally intense, electrifying experience. But even if Friedkin’s film is slavishly faithful to Lett’s text, experiencing a play is very different from experiencing a film. Theater is a shared communal venture, with the actors sharing space with their audience, and both groups sharing energy—and responsibility—for the experience. Plays demand creative intellectual and emotional participation on the part of their audiences: an ethically responsible, imaginative engagement with the material, which film does not require. In the flatter, more graphic, more consumerist medium of cinema, Killer Joe‘s shocks and brutality come across as more cynically manipulative, and its sexual politics seem more leering and grossly exploitative.