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Killer Joe

Director: William Friedkin
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon

(LD Entertainment; US theatrical: 27 Jul 2012 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 29 Jun 2012 (General release); 2011)

His Eyes Hurt

There are only two ways to present sex and violence. You either do it subtly or you dish it out raw. In the case of those characters, I wanted the audience to understand precisely who they were.
William Friedkin

Staggering to his father’s house trailer, in the dead of night, in the rain, Chris (Emile Hirsch) slams his fists on the door. He slips in the mud, then bellows for his sister Dottie (Juno Temple), supposedly asleep in her tiny bedroom, indicated by a tracking shot to her door—marked in a fanciful, cheap block letters, “DOTTIE.” Outisde, Chris lurches again, then hears the door opening. He looks up, filthy-faced and uneasy on his feet, to see a woman’s crotch, close and naked. The camera here takes Chris’ view, so that you might share his surprise at the sight of this dark, scary V.

The joke goes on, in this first sequence of Killer Joe, as Chris recognizes instantly that he’s staring at his stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon). When he protests (“Put some clothes on for Christ’s sake!”), she’s hardly moved. She didn’t know who’d be at the door, she explains. They argue some more, loudly, as his father/her husband Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) enters the front room where they prowl, a room that is, of course, small and cluttered with junk. Chris moans at last: “I don’t want Dottie looking at her own stepmother’s pussy.”

It’s not so much a punchline as a pointer. It’s a sign that, for all the vulgar, angry ruckus, Chris, at least, holds to a kind of nominal line, whereby he remembers his sister. When Dottie emerges from her bedroom at the back, she seems a teenager of some sort, desperately childish and underdressed in her own way. The adults gape as she stands before them, and you get the idea that Chris might be right, that she needs protection. You guess she needs protection against them, rather than from them.

This is the premise of Killer Joe, that these immoral, idiot, low-rent men share a faux moral cause in looking after their virgin, whether sister and daughter. You learn just how faux when they land on a way to make some money, namely, killing Chris and Dottie’s mom. She’s a bad influence, the men agree, she’s drunk and mean. No surprise, Chris and Ansel are drinking in a pickup truck when they decide to hire a contract killer. The rain pelts their windshield as they nod over “what’s best for Dottie.”

This notion of “what’s best for Dottie” is stretched all out of shape as the men come to odious terms with the killer, a self-adoring West Dallas detective named Joe (Matthew McConaughey). Visibly set apart from the father-son team by his menacing slickness—his attention to grooming, for instance—Joe is also like them, cruel, calculating in a base way, and casually brutal. Both cop and killer, Joe embodies the Chris-Ansel problem in another way: supposed to protect, supposed to do what’s best for Dottie (or whatever she’s supposed to represent), instead he exploits and abuses.

Joe is, to be sure, the alpha exploiter here. In every one of his scenes, he menaces, the camera low and the shadows unsettling, whether he’s bullying the boys into the deal he wants, evaluating Sharla or coaxing Dottie into wearing the dress he wants her to wear. These scenes are claustrophobic and wordy (the movie’s based on a play by Tracy Letts), as Chris and Ansel do their best to cajole, then outlast, Joe. They can’t hope to keep up with his smooth talk, but they can fume and bluster and declare their good intentions, even as his implacable violence pervades every moment of their increasingly sorry existence.

All the men claim to look after Dottie, each lying to himself and his fellow schemers. As the center of each fantasy—the object to be had, the emblem of victory—Dottie also possesses a discomfiting pale and fleshy magic, beckoning in Chris’ dreams, willing enough in Joe’s assaults. “His eyes hurt,” she says of Joe, suggesting her reservoirs of insight, deep within utterly disturbing naivete. However you imagine causes for Dottie’s compliance, she allows each player—Sharla included—to feel justified, and that in turn helps you to judge them.

It’s this move that is Killer Joe‘s most insidious, that it invites you to feel at once repulsed and thrilled by the horrors unfolding so inevitably in its final moments. For all the menacing and conniving that goes on throughout the movie, for all the bloody sentences carried out, it still lets you feel smart—or at least, smarter than these stupid rubes who can’t stop clambering and clawing. You might understand “where you are.” But you don’t have to pay for it.


Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.

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