KILLER JOE undeniably packs some killer elements (in performance and dialogue) but squats on mighty tough ethical ground as a property to recommend to many people, and while you may be fixed in place by its in-your-face boldness, it truly leaves a bad taste in your mouth—doubly so if you happen to like chicken.
The white-trash dive into 102 minutes of dipshit depravity falls (or flushes) into a category deigned by the all-blowing Wikipedia (beware ye who doth unduly rely) as “American Southern Gothic black comedy crime film”. Multi-tasking actor/playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts originally wrote this as a play in 1991. First staged two years later, since 1993 it has been performed in at least 15 countries in a dozen languages. It took twenty years to besmirch screens, with Letts handling the adaptation. Direction was put in the blunt and callous care of well-versed button-pusher and misanthrope William Friedkin, who never saw dignity and delicacy he couldn’t demolish. This is not your Aunt Margie’s “American Southern Gothic black comedy crime film.”
West Dallas, Texas. Trailer-park redneck moron ‘Chris’ (Emile Hirsch) owes drug dealers big-time. Hatching a plan to murder his wicked mother for insurance money, he convinces ‘Ansel’, his even less “aware” father (Thomas Haden Church), remarried to sluttish ‘Sharla’ (Gina Gershon) to go along with the scheme. Hiring ‘Joe Cooper’ (Matthew McConaughey) a cop who moonlights as a contract killer, Chris hopes to evade death-wrath from ‘Digger’ (Marc Macauley) and his goons. Ice-cool Joe, observing the dope dopes he’s dealing with, demands the cretin family’s kid sister ‘Dottie’ (Juno Temple), a naive sex kitten, the only one with some possible link to decency, as a “retainer“.
There are some keen moments of super-black humor mined from the squalid stupidity of the group and their sordid scheming, and the acting mostly works (Hirsch less convincing than the others), but the final explosion of prolonged sadism is as outrageous and off-puttingly vile as anything that name-actors could sign onto—for whatever self-abnegating “explore-sides-of-the-character” manure. “Indulgence, Art wants you to meet Humiliation”. Then be sure to praise the director’s “vision” in the DVD extras.
Betts & Friedkin’s contempt for their miserable characters is one thing, but the up-close abuse piled on (a willing, nonetheless) Gershon is pornographic (not the fun kind, either, unless you’re a closet sociopath). McConaughey’s reptilian Joe is one for the books, give it that. Caleb Deschanel manned the camera. *
Lifting the lid to the drain, Betts & Friedkin had collaborated before, on the claustrophobic creepiness of Bug, which is equally intense, but not outright repellent (it’s amazingly acted). Costing $11,000,000 to splooge out, this split reviews between approving and appalled, but only bottom-fed the brackish gene pool for $3,665,000 globally, 175th place for 2012. Other than as an exercise in craft, it’s hard to see the moral compass point of this mean and ugly yet obviously committed creative endeavor. Wallow on.
* Trivia must note that for her “Hi’ya, Mom!” introduction scene, Gershon didn’t quite give her all for ‘Tracy & Billy’, as she shyly opted for a ‘merkin’ (that’s a crotch-double, kids: get ’em while they’re on sale). She dubbed it ‘Bertha’, in keeping with the spirit of good, clean fun that hallmarks the project.