Killer Joe came across my radar for two reasons. Firstly, it was directed by William Friedkin, the man behind my #1 horror movie, tragically, bizarrely not appearing in this site’s top 10, The Exorcist. Additionally, and perhaps more relevant to this, he directed the low budget, creepy and intense Bug (2006), a psychological horror about paranoia destroying two people, from the same writer as Joe.
The second reason was news in that in the USA, it gotten the dreaded NC-17 certificate, barring it from most major cinema chains and, less of a threat nowadays, from Blockbuster Video stores.
Being the type to actively seek out extremes in cinema where I can find them, pedigree and controversy put this on my to-see list.
What hadn’t filtered in before seeing it was that, unlike Bug, Killer Joe is a comedy. A black, black, disturbing, darkest of comedies.
Emile Hirsch, whom you probably didn’t see in Speed Racer stars as Chris. Owing money to dangerous people, he has been made aware that his mother has a life insurance policy worth $50,000 and that his sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), is the sole beneficiary.
With his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), he hatches a plan to kill her and get their hands on the money. Chris has heard of a cop who does that kind of thing on the side. This cop is our good friend Joe, and he wants money up front, which nobody has, so he decides to take Dottie as a retainer, and here starts the slide into lunacy.
Matthew McConaughey is Joe, subverting his usual romantic-comedy charismatic slacker role. I haven’t seen much of him in that type of part (enough to judge, though, clearly), but he’s excellent here, putting in a hell of a performance. Maybe you need the body of work leading up to it for contrast, but like James van der Beek (no, seriously) in The Rules of Attraction, McConaughey is just better as an amoral psychopath.
The rest of the cast are good too, even if Hirsch is a bit too pretty looking (even after being beaten to a pulp) to be convincing as a trailer-park lowlife. Haden Church is highly amusing as an amiable dullard who just wants to get his hands on some money.
Most of the comedy comes from a place of deep darkness, contrasting characters’ attitudes with their situations. Chris has been cornered by a crime boss that he owes money to, and they have a lighthearted conversation, in the full knowledge that Chris is about to be pounded into mush. Where a regular comedy could play this scene and then cut, leaving the audience to fill in the remainder and chuckle, Killer Joe is the type that follows it by showing the graphic, brutal beating.
The comedy of contrasts goes on in this vein, getting more and more messed up until its controversial, notable finale. I have mixed feelings about it. It’s out to push buttons and make you feel uncomfortable, and it certainly succeeds in that.
On the other hand, while I’m not the type to come from moral high ground or anything, it puts forward something of a dubious message. Ansel’s wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) is beaten and humiliated, as he sits aside and lets it happen. His allowance is played for laughs, but at the same time the audience has been led to the conclusion that she deserves it, so it’s OK. This whole scene is almost certainly the cause of the NC-17, manages to be horrifically graphic without actually being so. You’ll have to see it to understand, and it will also explain why the poster features a blood-spattered chicken wing.
So in conclusion, with a caveat or two, it’s definitely worth your time. It feels almost wrong to be that entertaining, but it’s uncompromising insanity for people who seek it out.