A grindhouse film noir for the NC-17 era, Killer Joe is a rough go. The movie wears its sleaze like a ratty stole dug out from a bin at the “thrifty.” If you get a thrill from such stuff, you might consider it a scuzzy masterpiece. If you expect a little more from your movies, even your sordid ones, Killer Joe thankfully offers a handful of other elements that actually add up to something.
Among these is the way the movie plays with noir conventions. Based on the play by Tracy Letts, Killer Joe follows a storyline straight from the ’40s (never mind that it’s centered on a contemporary Texas trailer family). Financially desperate son Chris (Emile Hirsch) plots to have his abusive mother killed so that his younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) can benefit from the life-insurance money. And so they contact Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a contract killer. He agrees to take the job as long as he can have Dottie – yes, in that way – as a retainer.
Temple gives a harrowing, remarkable performance as a dazed-and-confused innocent who nonetheless functions as this tale’s femme fatale. Hiding in her doll-strewn room while her brother and father (a very funny Thomas Haden Church) brawl in the kitchen, Dottie is clearly the movie’s innocent – the one figure yet unsullied by this degrading life. That changes, however, when Chris hatches his plan, Dottie overhears and nonchalantly agrees (mom once tried to suffocate her, after all). From that point on, you’re never quite sure whether she’s really a naive young thing prone to stream-of-consciousness musings or actually a schemer playing everyone involved – including Joe.
Which brings us to McConaughey. The actor has spent a lot of his career smiling, so it’s easy to forget that when he puts the grin away, he has the dead eyes of a great white shark. (Dottie, in just one example of Letts’ terrific dialogue, tells Joe that his “eyes hurt.”) Menacingly quiet, Joe is a constant threat, coiled and ready to explode. And that he does in the film’s perverse payoff, where the ugliness gets amplified to gonzo proportions and ultimately devours everything – the performances, the noir touches – that came before.
This was, of course, inevitable, and somewhat appropriate (I’d hardly want Killer Joe to have a happy ending). But the way the luridness takes over speaks to the influence of director William Friedkin, who’s taken a similar approach in everything from The Exorcist to his last adaptation of a Letts play, Bug. Friedkin’s is a leering camera, eager for the ickiness of his material, even at the expense of the more interesting thematic concerns that may be in play. Here, this especially weakens Killer Joe‘s strongest element: Temple’s performance as Dottie. There’s a disconnect in the fact that the movie’s richest, most complicated character is also its most unnecessarily sexualized one.
So there are some hurdles here, but none that prove insurmountable for those whose stomachs are strong. Killer Joe plays something like Double Indemnity if it were freed from its Hays Code-restrictions and own inhibitions. Whether that’s preferable is another question entirely.