It’s hard to appreciate any film that exalts its own exploitation of a particular subculture. In Killer Joe, the condescension and cruelty with which director William Friedkin (along with playwright Tracy Letts) approaches Texas trailer park communities is enough to undo anything interesting the film might otherwise offer.
Emile Hirsch plays Chris, a standard trailer trash kid who’s found himself in enough debt to the wrong people that he’s ready to do desperate things. He discovers his mother has a hefty life insurance policy whose sole beneficiary is Chris’s airy, mid-pubescent sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Chris and his remarried father Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church) hatch a plan to hire a detective who does some assassin work on the side. This detective, Joe Cooper (Matthew McConnaughey), agrees to do the work on credit so long as he can fuck Dottie — someone for whom Chris has confused, non-brotherly feelings.
Chris’s plans obviously go to shit somewhere in the second act; Killer Joe becomes a small Emile Hirsch snuff film, each scene leaving Chris with newer and deeper emotional and physical bruises before the comically violent climax. McConnaughey plays the creepy, sex-starved detective almost too deftly (watching Joe force himself on Dottie will be even more unsettling for anyone who remembers McConnaughey’s career-defining catchphrase about high school girls in Dazed and Confused). While Friedkin’s background in horror serves him well as a voyeur of physical vulgarity, in Killer Joe he becomes redundant; in the film’s final act, Joe soliloquizes while having Ansel’s wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) fellate a chicken drumstick he grips to his crotch. The film’s more graphic moments rarely serve either the narrative or the characters’ development — in the case of the drumstick, the scene complicates the purity of Joe’s relationship with Dottie. Joe’s need to control the situation he’s fostered overpowers his romantic asides, and what might redeem or at least add dimension to an otherwise basic character instead does nothing but muddle his motives.
Killer Joe’s inconsistencies devolve into incoherence as more rain falls on the Dallas-Fort Worth area during the film’s 102 minutes than has in the last decade. A brutal killer but a sincere, gentle lover, Joe finds time for a lunatic rampage before delivering a heartfelt admission of love. While at times, the film aspires to be an essay on psychological horror, before long the narrative returns to the basic murder-for-hire story it started out as, until finally settling into a surreally comedic love story between an exploitative psychopath and his semi-conscious child bride. Dottie serves as the story’s disconnected commentator, but her attachment to Joe becomes more and more sinister as her basic psychic damage further reveals itself.
It’s hard not to think Friedkin and Letts have chosen trailer park deadbeats as their characters because they view this particular population as expendable. The plot hinges on Chris and Ansel’s basic gullibility, twisted by the relentless infidelities of Ansel’s wives. By using white trash as a touchstone for stupidity and immorality, Friedkin asks the audience to be party to a discomfiting cultural shorthand, thereby making the film harder to stomach than its basic grotesquerie already demands. A film with no sympathetic characters already asks so much of the viewer; when it ends on an irresolute cliffhanger, with the fate of the film’s evil heart left pointlessly unaddressed, then it can’t be said that anything was earned by the viewer’s experience. That the stakes in the film are so low — Chris owes a mere $6,000 — means that killing him seems like a waste of time for the bike thugs on his tail. Chris has nothing to redeem himself and operates at the same desperate, screeching pitch for the entirety of the film, making his fate obvious fairly early. Meanwhile Joe, a character who could be compelling, never gets past being merely confusing. Church and Gershon put on fine performances, but their characters also only permit themselves a single dimension. For Ansel, it’s defeat; for Sharla, deception. Friedkin comes off as a dirty old man, emotionless and divorced from reality. Killer Joe would be upsetting if only it weren’t so obnoxious.