July 27, 2012


by Vadim Rizov

Killer Joe

William Friedkin's 2006 adaptation of Tracy Letts' first play Bug was a model of superior handling of inferior material. There was nothing wrong with the set-up: paranoid but polite combat vet Peter Evans (Michael Shannon) sucks vulnerable waitress Agnes White (Ashley Judd) into his delusion that his body is filled with government-designed microbes. The rising hysteria gestured towards metaphorical topicality without arriving at a point. Friedkin's virtuoso direction nonetheless amped up the tension one fractional zoom at a time, and his camerawork is similarly vigorous in Killer Joe, an adaptation of Letts' second, even more directionless play. Once again, a well-mannered outside menace—cop/contract killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey)—is introduced into already unstable lives with fatal results. If the point this time is comparably obscure, the results confirm the now 77-year-old Friedkin's ability to get a rise out of viewers in irresponsible but jolting ways.

Killer Joe

Tracy Letts' "Killer Joe" premiered on stage in 1993, a peak period for daytime TV viewers to watch self-professed white trash confront each other for rowdy audiences' condescending amusement. The drama was aware of the connection between its characters and their most common public forum: "No pre show music," the stage directions instructed, "only static from the t.v." The link wasn't lost on The New York Times' Ben Brantley when he reviewed the 1998 New York production, noting "a lot of beer, a little reefer, a whole lot of television" as the staples of the lives of the Smith family. In the film, the Smiths are an all-American clan in the most pejorative sense: mommy's shacked up and out of the picture, daddy Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) is a shiftless mechanic, new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) is conducting an affair after her pizza parlor shifts are over and son Chris (Emile Hirsch) is in hock to local loan sharks. Only sleepwalking virgin Dottie (Juno Temple) stands out as having any potential to break the trailer park rut, since she harbors vague dreams of learning martial arts.

Killer Joe

Way behind on repaying $6,000, Chris proposes hiring Joe to take out mom, who's got a $50,000 life insurance policy payable to Dottie. Dad takes a little convincing, but over conversation at a strip club—Bud Light for father, regular Bud for son—Chris makes a decent case. Joe requires a $25,000 payment, cash in advance, terms non-negotiable—at least until he spots Dottie and proposes that she act as a "a retainer." Chris isn't thrilled (he harbors not-so-vaguely incestuous urges towards sis), but there's no choice. Father and son aren't assassin material, and everyone in the family needs the money.

Introduced sleepwalking in a nightgown, Dottie bears unmistakable hints of Tennessee Williams' Baby Doll, whose teen sexuality drove Karl Malden to frenzy. Here, she's a little less conscious of how her body works on men. Entering the trailer park, Killer Joe's introduced in a series of tight close-ups—boots on the ground, gloves pulled tight—suggesting he's an iconographic force of evil. The joke is that he's only just a little less pathetic than his employers, who lack the ability to resist even slightly more force. Dottie's left to dinner (tuna casserole) and defloration with Joe. Friedkin's visual language is clear: in her first tete-a-tete with Joe he's all close-ups, while she gets constant full-body shots.

Killer Joe

The family's frankly exploitative treatment of Dottie as an economic resource (rationalized as for her own future benefit to get her to karate school) is never fully verbalized. Unable to explain to his daughter that she has to give it up for matters to proceed, Ansel and Chris simply bounce. Dottie doesn't seem to mind: late in the movie, she soliloquizes that she simply has to get away from these horrible people, and Joe's her only exit strategy. The trailer park atmosphere is generically right on (crushed beer cans on the living room table, constant monster-truck footage on the TV) but also the stuff of a thousand shorthand script scene-setters. (Fittingly, Killer Joe is set in Dallas but was shot in New Orleans, which offers better tax breaks.) Every performance is pretty much perfect, but the dedication is misplaced. Characterization is sketchy and inconsistent: in what's effectively a five-character piece, it's remarkable that Killer Joe never plausibly fills out at least one of its players.

McConaughey's performance has monopolized reviews, along with the penultimate scene, which can no longer be deemed a spoiler. It's a two-part stunner, which begins with Killer Joe finally becoming the glowering monster he's not been the rest of the film to riveting effect. He knows something about Sharla Ansel doesn't, and taunts the husband with it. "I'm never aware," Ansel defeatedly admits when he realizes how fully he's been hoodwinked. "No need for name calling," Joe drawls at Sharla. "I'm a guest here." So far so good—the film's finally shifted from uneasy black comedy to tragic climax, with Texan politeness an ominous warning of imminent danger—until Killer Joe pulls out a chicken wing and, in the most-discussed moment, forces Sharla to fellate it.

Killer Joe

How you respond to this moment will depend on whether you're willing to accept Killer Joe as trailer trash exploitation fare or a superficially sleazy film with serious moral consequences. Friedkin's staging of this degradation is neither/nor: Joe looks bad-porn ridiculous, but Sharla—bruised and bleeding—has just received a The Killer Inside Me-level pummeling. A scene that's built to explosive heights collapses as irreconcilable tones collide.

This climactic would-be talking point aside, Killer Joe works much better than its source material would seem to allow. Room is made for Friedkin to briefly stage one of his deftest chases, with Chris running from his creditors like Benicio Del Toro in The Hunted. From the thunder-and-lightning trailer-park-on-fire opening onwards, Friedkin is typically virtuoso in pushing the tawdry drama along. McConaughey shouldn't overshadow the fine work around him (especially Church's deeply felt portrayal of a failed father resorting to parental chidings like "Watch your fucking mouth"). If the contempt is an unexamined given, blame Letts: the opening credits clearly establish that this is "William Friedkin's film of" his play. Assign blame and derision accordingly.

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Posted by ahillis at July 27, 2012 10:07 AM