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Killer Joe

Killer Joe

Y'all nasty people make me sick to my goddamn stomach

dir: William Friedkin

Ew, this film is sleazy and nuts.

I guessed Killer Joe would be a lurid, vile, messy trawl through white trash mania and I can’t say I was at all surprised by the end result. I mean, a title like that doesn’t conjure visions of doilies, parasols and cucumber sandwiches. Instead, surprising no-one but me, this flick ends up being a nasty, repugnant black comedy about how dumb people do dumb stuff.

The chap referred to in the title is played by Mathew McConaughey, and this caps off an incredible year for this very odd man. I’ve generally found him to be an actor I don’t have much time for, but this year he’s been great in a whole bunch of stuff. He played the incredulous prosecutor in Bernie perfectly. He played the awesome (and admittedly creepy) owner of the all-male strip club in Magic Mike. And now he’s playing the loopiest and nastiest character he’s played thus far.

Joe Cooper is a police detective who also, somehow, gets to moonlight as a contract killer. I guess if you’re potentially one of the guys who’d be investigating a murder in a one-horse shitty Texan city, then you’ve got a bit of a leg-up on the opposition.

He is hired by a bunch of white trash morons to kill a particular woman. About this he seems to have absolutely no qualms or compunctions, but the fundamental problem is that he’s dealing with Grade A morons, and they don’t have the money to pay him up front. In such a circumstance, he does what any self-respecting entrepreneur would do: he takes a security retainer, in the form of a girl called Dottie (Juno Temple).

To say that this is all very unsettling would be perhaps understating the ugliness of what’s going on. I mean, after all, a central part of the movie has to do with someone committing cold blooded murder and making it look like an accident for fun and profit. But the real ugliness lies within the family itself, of people too stupid to understand how truly stupid they are.

Chris (Emile Hirsch), the one that kicks the whole ‘plan’ into action, is so stupid, so fucking stupid, that he thinks he’s actually a genius. It doesn’t help that his dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) is even dumber than he is, is married to a fairly dumb woman called Sharla (Gina Gershon) and that together they create a perfect synergy of stupidity. This moronic nexus arising from a vacuum-like absence of neural activity creates the conditions for some really awful stuff to happen, which, I think, we’re meant to find funny.

And into this mix comes Joe, who, at least at first, seems like a calm and controlled individual. His attentions towards the child-like (and let’s face it, actual child since her brain damage gives her the mental age of a child) Dottie at first don’t seem that reprehensible. He regards her as something of a marvel, a wonder, with her simple ways hiding a soulfulness lacking from the rest of her hick family. But Joe is a barely restrained monster, and he wants his payment for services rendered the way monsters in ye olde fairy tales wanted sacrifices and tribute paid to them lest they go berserk and kill everyone.

The fact that in some odd ways that definitely have nothing to do with morality or decency, Joe is less reprehensible than this reprehensible family renders us unsure as to what we really think should or might happen to these dregs of humanity.

We can then simultaneously have the guilt felt when looking down our patrician noses at these oiks and sub-humans, lazing in our recliners in judgement of these fuckers, as if we’re so much better than the poor scum of the earth that live and rarely leave their trailer parks.

If in a harsh mood, we could probably hope that Joe or some Act of God could wipe them out, like one of those tornadoes that seem to favour the flattest, poorest, most Christian parts of the States. But Dottie’s done nothing wrong, in or out of our eyes. You could argue that her acquiescence with the plan to kill this other person constitutes criminal complicity, but that’s hardly fair. She is, after all, differently abled, at least intellectually.

Although Texas is world-famous for executing legally-defined retarded people whose crimes were committed when they weren’t even adults, so I guess that wouldn’t stop them. Look, I’m doing this film a disservice by focussing on logic and legality and thinking about this from a ‘true crime’ perspective. It’s nothing of the sort, and it’s got far more in common with William Friedkin and screenwriter Tracy Lett’s previously collaboration Bug, which was even nuttier than this. That film had a crazy person in an enclosed place with a relatively sane person, who ends up going crazy as well.

Killer Joe has a bunch of idiotic people getting involved in something ugly and making it worse because the choices they make are very bad choices, and because a sociopath like Joe has no reason not to exploit them, because they’re only going to make things worse with their unique brand of mindlessness. As an example, Chris, who kicked all this shitstorm of stupidity off, only did so because he couldn’t think of a better way to get a quick grand in order to pay off a gambling debt. The focus of his plan, which isn’t even really his plan, is to somehow collect on a certain person’s life insurance, which will give him enough money to pay off his debts and pay off the hitman.

Of course, we get to see him also betting a thousand dollars at an off-track betting place called Sport of Kings, in one of the film’s many delicious and overdone ironies, as if this could now be the cure for all his ills. Could there have been a better way to solve these financial problems without beatings, murder and harsh language getting involved? In the immortal words of Sarah Palin, you betcha!

The flick inexplicably builds to one of the sleaziest, nastiest endings to a flick I’ve ever seen, but not in the sense that horror flicks have obviously nasty endings. I mean, the demented nature of Joe’s insertion of himself into this family reaches surreal and sexually violent heights as he brings both a terrible revenge on those who he sees as having wronged him, and, perversely, the chance to ‘become’ part of this family.

It’s lurid, it’s nasty, and I guess it’s meant to be funny, but it’s just… wow. I think I laughed at the very end, but, really, getting there was a bit of a trial. What Joe does to Sharla is very hard to watch. Gina Gershon is a talented actress who’s had a lot of shitty roles, but that scene with the chicken has to be a career low-point for all concerned. The only people I can imagine liking it are food fetish sadomasochists, and for those kinds of perverts, well, let’s just say you’re not my demographic.

As I said earlier, I did laugh at that ending, and I think I was supposed to, but I’m not sure if the film really works overall. It’s a bit of a trawl, for little reward in the end. The acting performances are not great across the board. McConaughey is solidly good, and urky and creepy and horrible and compelling, but Emile Hirsch and Gina Gershon were all over the place. Juno Temple is in a million flicks currently, and her character is a bit too insubstantial to really resonate, and it certainly fills up the depravity / nudity quota she’s perhaps trying to get out of the way early in her acting career, since she seems to be a bit of a go-to actress for this kind of trash.

Thomas Haden Church is, even more perversely, remarkably strong with his character. He’s consistent throughout, and has some really difficult stuff to get through in the final third of the flick. The one feature that distinguishes him somewhat from the morons he’s surrounded by is that he knows he’s a moron, but his consistency marks him more.

Ultimately, I can’t say I really enjoyed this hick-baiting, redneck-insulting mud ride through the stupid side of the criminal underworld, but I can definitely say I wasn’t bored. It’s too nutty, too godawfully nasty to be dull, and too well made by veterans who really should know better by now. They load it up with details that reward the attentive viewer (it’s not subtle), my favourite of which is the dog at the trailer park that only barks when Chris comes home. Some watchdog you are.

Strange things make me laugh, but this flick having a potentially ‘happy’ ending has to be the strangest funny thing I’ve seen all year.

7 reasons why all these characters should have a tall concrete fence dropped around them so that they can’t get out and breed with the rest of the world out of 10

“You insult me again, and I'll cut your face off and wear it over my own.” – that’s no way to talk to a lady – Killer Joe