I want to start out by clarifying that I have no high-minded, moralistic objections to graphic sexual or violent content in movies. I can — and have — enjoyed and praised some very graphic films, but the question must be asked: what purpose does it serve? I asked myself this question while watching Killer Joe, and I couldn’t come up with an answer. As far as I can tell, everything that pushes it into a well-deserved NC-17 is included only for shock value.
The shame is that this is otherwise a pretty fantastically well-made movie. The story is an engaging, twisty crime plot, right up there with a good con or heist movie; and it’s anchored with performances that start at impressive and go from there. And I can’t disagree with those that call it wildly funny at points. But as a whole I cannot bring myself to call it good.
The Smith family brings a new meaning to “trailer trash”. I don’t believe that this is any more a realistic portrayal of trailer park residents than Raising Arizona, but it’s not really meant to be. Chris (Emile Hirsch) lives with his mother, of whom we don’t see much, since she’s thrown him out. He comes knocking, and his stepmother, Sharla (Gina Gershon) answers with no pants on, explaining that she didn’t know who it was, as if that makes it any better.
Chris needs to have a heart-to-heart with his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), so they go to a strip club. Chris needs money to pay off some drug dealers, and it just so happens that his mother has a large life insurance policy payable to his cheerfully slow sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). He has also heard about Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a detective in the Dallas police department who offers his services as a hit man on the side.
Of course, if Chris had the money to pay Joe’s fee up front he wouldn’t need a hit man. Joe starts to blow him off, but then decides to accept Dottie as a retainer in lieu of the money. And yes, it’s exactly as creepy as that sounds.
Chris and Ansel are both stupid in their own ways; Hirsch’s Chris is too stupid to know how stupid he is, while Church — who is not actually stupid — sinks into Ansel’s stupidity like a well-worn sofa whose springs are long since shot. Gershon seems a throwaway until she comes alive in the third act, and McConaughey makes Joe as menacing as we could hope for. But Temple steals the show as Dottie, and she deserves the highest praise for her performance.
However, as I said, this is an extremely, needlessly, and thoughtlessly graphic movie. When Sharla answers the door in the first scene, dialogue is all that is required to establish her state of dress. And yet director William Friedkin has decided that that it will only be clear if we see that Gina Gershon is actually not wearing any pants. It goes downhill from there.
Like I said, I’m not opposed to graphic content in films. The infamous elevator scene in Drive is an important breaking point, used in isolation as a necessary illustration of what roils beneath the driver’s laconic surface. The extreme violence in Straw Dogs — mainly the original, but also the remake, to some extent — comes after David has been pushed too far and is forced into defending his wife and home at all costs. The sexuality in Shame explores the fallout of childhood abuse and depression with a hard, unflinching look. Even in Bug — also directed by Friedkin from a play by Tracy Letts — the spectacle serves in some way to examine untreated mental illness and addiction.
But the graphic content in Killer Joe seems almost entirely gratuitous, and it’s pushed to eleven purely in the name of shock value. I cannot for the life of me see a message here; the underlying story is a simple clockwork plot, like a con or heist movie, which serves to entertain and engage a certain puzzle-box aesthetic as we work out what everyone is really thinking, and it needs no deeper meaning than that to be a good movie. But when you layer on shockingly explicit sex and violence without a meaning to support it, the whole thing collapses under the weight.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.