Killer Joe (LD Entertainment, NC-17)

film killer-joe_75This is the sort of movie where, every time a girl is naked, you get a long, lingering look at them, but when boys are naked, they’re carefully arranged so as not to show any of the hangy-down bits.


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The mere existence of the film Killer Joe is something of a mystery. It’s a very violent movie and has pretty graphic sex and nudity, but it stars movie stars. There seems to be no way it would have ever gotten anything but an NC-17 rating (which is, of course, what it received), and yet it had a $10 million budget. Stop and ponder here that only two movies with NC-17 ratings have ever grossed more than $10 million in the American box office: 1990’s Henry & June and 1995’s Showgirls. That is to say, Killer Joe was almost definitely going to be a money-losing endeavor from the start, at least in the short run. It is clearly a midnight movie, but is being released in broad daylight around the country.

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where Killer Joe winds up upsetting a whole lot of people. It comes out on video; someone who loves Matthew McConaughey’s romantic comedies stumbles across it, and decides to give it a shot. They’d probably have a heart attack. You see a matinee of it in the theater on a weekday—there aren’t many people around, and you won’t know what the hell to make of it; it’s at once a very funny film and a very hateful one. You need a big crowd of like-minded people surrounding you, all preferably seeing it for the first time, to get the full experience.

On second thought, it doesn’t seem like it just being a plain old midnight movie is good enough: It needs to be seen at midnight at a film festival, preferably a loose one like South by Southwest (where it actually played earlier in the year).

Killer Joe is the second cinematic collaboration between director William Friedkin (yes, the dude who made The Exorcist; you should know he’s not into pulling punches) and screenwriter Tracy Letts, writing a script based on one of his own stage plays. Their first collaboration was Bug back in 2006, which was something close to great and terminally underseen. Here we have the family Smith, who are stupid, criminal white trash: son Chris (Emile Hirsch, who I usually don’t like but is okay here), father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church, easily the best he’s been since Sideways), stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon, in what surely has to be the most thankless role written in the past decade or so), and virginal daughter Dottie (The Dark Knight Rises’ Juno Temple, here playing a role of the sort that would have surely gone to Bijou Phillips had this movie been made 10 years ago). Chris comes up with a plan—which the rest of the family supports—to have his birth mother (who we never meet) killed. You see, Dottie is the sole benefactor of the woman’s $50,000 life insurance policy, which the family desperately needs for various reasons. The man they hire to do the deed is a Dallas police detective who moonlights as an assassin, Killer Joe Cooper. He is good at what he does, smart, and not a little sadistic—and he has a taste for young girls.

That leads to one of the first scenes designed to upset the audience. There’s a pretty graphic sex scene between Killer Joe and Dottie, who, unless I misunderstood (which I kind of hope is the case), is supposed to be 12 years old. (Temple’s 23 in real life, and McConaughey 42.) It might also be worth mentioning that this is the sort of movie where, every time a girl is naked, you get a long, lingering look at them, but when boys are naked, they’re carefully arranged so as to not show any of the hangy-down bits, and then scamper offscreen as soon as possible. Meanwhile, violence against women in the film is always much more visceral and prolonged than such acts against men. Some people will be able to chalk this type of stuff off alongside how obviously offensive the movie aims to be; others will just find the film (and maybe Friedkin, and maybe Letts) wildly misogynistic.

If you can’t tell, I actually really had a lot of fun at this movie. To endorse the film in this case is different from endorsing the way it treats its characters, which is horribly. The weird thing that might not be coming through is just how funny the damned thing is; I laughed more at Killer Joe than I have at any other movie so far this year, probably by a long shot. It’s incredibly well cast (McConaughey’s three for three this year, after Bernie and Magic Mike, and Church is hilarious), though sometimes I found myself wishing that the cast looked more like real white trash and less like movie stars.

And, oddly, it is shot very well by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel—who, yes, is Zooey’s father, but also the man who shot The Passion of the Christ. At first, that seems like a strange leap to make, from Passion of the Christ to Killer Joe, but his job on each was probably about the same: trying to keep all of the brutality in the center of the frame. | Pete Timmermann

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