I’ve shilled for genres big and small, appreciated or not, and Country Noir (as one of its main proponents, Daniel “author of Winter’s Bone” Woodrell labeled it back in 1996) is certainly one of the least-appreciated. Noir never left us, obviously, it just shed it’s outer skin of San Francisco, smokey rooms and Private Dicks with hot secretaries. All the cliches Raymond Chandler’s hardcore fans continue to embrace. Beyond the sheltering walls of cities, with their plumb angles and functional social structures (however corrupt they may or may not be) lies a world of violent crime, inveterate lying, and shameless acts of complete degradation. All in the name of catching what your average supercriminal (whether in Metropolis, Gotham or Wall Street) would consider financial table scraps – barely enough to blow your nose with, let alone improve your life. You think your life sucks because you lacked money…? NO! WRONG ANSWER!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Sorry. Didn’t mean to yell. But films that genuinely get to me are rare and special treats now, after years of facing down the New Release fire hose every week from late-May until late-December. I missed Killer Joe‘s first run because it didn’t have one, and it didn’t have one because the MPAA slapped it with a NC-17 – the Kiss of Death for any film hoping to screen in a US theaters. Most refuse to run NC-17-rated films flat-out, fearing the wrath of outraged, Puritanical assholes…like the ones who run the MPAA rating’s board. Director William Friedkin refused to cut this down for them, immediately earning my respect. “To get an R rating,” he said to Rope of Silicon,
“I would have had to destroy it in order to save it and I wasn’t interested in doing that…The ratings board says no child under the age of 17 can see an NC-17 picture even accompanied by their parent. So they are telling parents what they can and cannot expose their children to. And who the hell are they?”
Who, indeed. (If you’d like to know more, watch the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated.) Someone put an R-rated version of this out on DVD, but you all have the director’s permission to ignore that and seek out the Unrated cut. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen in the dozens upon dozens of horror movies the MPAA mechanically stamps with an R-rating every year. The ones that star no one, are directed by car commercial veterans of the Propaganda Studios school, and financed by major studios like New Line (which, after a merger in 2008, means “Warner Brothers”) or TriStar (which has meant “Sony” for most of my adult life). Killer Joe , though, stars bonafide Beautiful People with functional acting careers – genuine Movie Stars with marque-ready names. And it’s directed by William Fucking Friedkin, a man who can respond to any argument, from now until the end of his days, with “Fuck you; I directed The Exorcist. And The French Connection. Your argument is invalid.”
Problem being there’s only one Exorcist and one French Connection…no matter how many terrible sequels, prequels, remakes, rip-offs are churned out in their names. Friedkin’s career suffered when audiences failed to realize this, and when his follow-up film, Sorcerer (a not-bad-just-weird Roy Schieder film that has nothing to do with traditional sorcerers), opened against Star Wars. Friedkin never stopped working, but Sorcerer‘s failure to recoup its costs eventually forced him into the TV Movie Ghetto…right before original premium cable channel series bulldozed that whole ‘hood in the early 2000s.
These days, when not directing random episodes of CSI, Friedkin’s working an alliance with actor/playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts. I haven’t seen their first collaboration, Bug, because it came out in May, 2007, when Spider-Man 3 was ruining my dates and what I hilariously refer to as my “sanity.” Now I’m actively curious, because in Letts it seems Friedkin’s found a decent collaborator for the fist time since at least the mid-1970s.
Despite being set in Dallas, Texas, Killer Joe is the kind of Country Noir that Daniel Woodrell would nod at sagely, saying, “Yup. That’s about right.” Which is the Ozark Mountain equivalent of a Five-out-of-Five Star rave in your snotty, glossy film magazine of choice. It’s an uncomfortably delicious depiction of one despicable family’s descent into a self-created nightmare. This time around, our All American family are the Smiths, a name so generic the Wachowskis attached it to their most prominent Agent of the Matrix. You can bet your ass Letts chose it with full knowledge of its implications, because these Smiths are, almost, all horrible people.
Eldest man-child Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a small-time drug dealer in debt to some local hoods (headed by the charmingly brutal Marc Macaulay). Kicked out by his girlfriend, Chris returns to the trailer park home his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church …speaking of Spider-Man 3), now shares with step-mother, Sharla (Gina Gershon) and not-so-little-anymore sister Dottie (Juno Temple , last seen around here as Catwoman’s side-chick in Dark Knight Rises). Since the Smiths are all as broke as Carlos Mencia’s jokes, and since they hold nothing but contempt and loathing for the children’s biological mother, Adele (Julia Adams), none react with the abject horror you’d expect when Chris proposes they kill Adele and split resulting insurance money.
Oh sure, Ansel purses his lips about it for a bit in the beginning, but Chris’ plan seems sound enough to a desperate drunk for whom “welding school” was synonymous with “an institution of higher learning.” Adele’s new boyfriend, Rex, told him all about the insurance…and about a certain police detective, Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey – yes, that one), who moonlights as a hitman-for-hire. Problem being, Joe charges a flat fee of twenty-five grand a pop, and he always takes it in advance. No exceptions…until now…
Because Noir stories are all about supposedly normal people doing things they would (normally, supposedly) not do. The joke being anyone is capable of anything if you pile on enough desperation. Here, Friedkin and Letts pile it high because they intend to suffocate you. Then, perhaps, as you struggle for air, you’ll begin to grasp how it is for the Smiths. Trapped as they are in grinding (financial, intellectual and spiritual) poverty, they are a family in name only, even at the start. As things go on, and grow worse…as they realize they’ve invited a true blue, Capital-K, Killer into their home…they became all too willing to sacrifice each other for some perceived future benefit.
As you can probably guess, these are not characters one can easily like…or “identify,” or “sympathize with” in the traditional, empty-headed way of…say…any of Matthew McConaughey’s RomCom characters. My mother (who became a McConaughey fangirl during his pre-RomCom period, from Contact to U-571) reports her fellow McConaughey fangirls flat-out refused to watch this with her, citing the oppressive air of pregnant violence and low class, American perversity in every frame, regardless of whether the characters are breaking each other’s faces or talking politely around a dinner table.
They don’t put it that way, of course. “Too violent,” they say, turning the movie off after the first fifteen minutes (when nothing overtly violent occurs, unless you feel assaulted by exposition). “All the characters are awful, awful people,” they say, reminding me of my fellow comic book fans at their whiniest. Awful people? Doing violent things? In a Noir Crime Drama? YA DON’T SAY?! These people are the reason all our TV Crime Dramas star unearthly Beautiful cops who have enough time to fuck around on each other in between solving the Sexual Homicide of the Week with The Latest Cutting Edge of Big Brother Technology.
There’s barely any “violence” to speak of in Killer Joe until the very end. Fuck’s sake, our only confirmed murder occurs off-screen…until the conclusion, when (in keeping with Noir tradition) everyone’s duplicitous actions come to light and the cold, cruel, life-destroying hand of Fate, which Friedkin’s worshiped ever since The Exorcist, closes all the Smiths (and Joe) into its fist and begins to squeeze. Their reaction reminds me of the universal and disproportionate reaction to the one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene of “shocking” violence in Drive – another Independent Crime Drama from 2011. That snuck past the MPAA with an R, and was therefore allowed inside a decent number of theaters, where it could shock “decent” people. Killer Joe actually shocked me, not with its depictions of violence, but with the growing awareness, as I watched that violence unfold, that I actually cared about the awful people involved, in spite of their actions and myself.
That’s a credit to the writer and director, obviously, but it’s as much a credit to the awesome cast. They all sell this material like its Black Friday and the store manager is holding their favorite pet to ransom. McConaughey gets the most props, because his character’s name doubles as the title, but the rest of them all disappear into their characters. In Chris, Emile Hirsch captures the perfect mix of desperation and low animal cunning, long-practiced from years of getting one over on his father, Ansel. I always knew Thomas Hayden Church could play the perfect redneck – it’s all the lines on his face – and I thank him for finally proving me right. I haven’t seen Gershan since she was the best thing in Showgirls, and now I’m sorry I damned her by association with that…thing. Her Sharla is the apotheosis of shrill, twenty-first century Evil Stepmothers.
Juno Temple’s Dottie is the most interesting, to me, because she clearly has The Shining. None of the other characters recognize it because Dottie’s just as clearly suffered some brain damage after that one time her mother tried to smother her with a pillow. She narrates this incident to Joe when they first meet in the clear, starry-eyed voice of a suffering innocent, fit for any Morality Play. Yet she pushes Chris’ plan from the land of We’re Just Talking into the realm of Actual Planning by endorsing it wholeheartedly: “I heard y’all talking about killing mama. I think it’s a good idea.” As Chris says to their father, “Well, there ya go.” Indeed. And here we are, with an actress strong enough to pull of both innocence and bloodthirst at the same time. With one line of dialogue and a look in her eyes that’s wiser than anyone else around here.
Except, of course, for “Killer” Joe. Having ignored McConaughey ever since Reign of Fire bored me to tears, I can’t ruffle my feathers over the fact Mr. Sexiest Man of 2005 is playing a maniac cop. But I can still praise a job well done from inside my own context, where hitmen are thick as litter on the streets of late-80s Hub City. Under Friedkin’s direction, those clear blue eyes and bladed cheeks become the face of a walking shark. And not the good kind, either. Joe’s introduced to us with the black hat, slick boots and cool suit of a classic Western villain and lesser films might’ve allowed Joe’s relationship with Dottie to reform him in some ridiculously trite way. Instead, the two appear to complete each other in a sickening sense that I’m sure would send the writers of Jerry Ma-fucking-guire running for their toilets. Dottie draws strength from the very professional, polite demeanor Joe let’s slip when they’re alone. Joe visibly regresses during these scenes, relieved to finally set down the weight of being a functional adult, if only for a few hours each night. Problem with that being the weight’s not so easy to pick up again. It can easily slip from your grasp…allowing the ugly thoughts it was holding in place to escape and become ugly actions.
Killer Joe, then, is an ugly movie about ugly people doing ugly things to each other. There are times when that intentional ugliness can annoy, as when Chris is rambling on, throwing up the wall of words that Bullshit Artists everywhere deploy. One wonders how a professional as tightly wound as Joe can stand to be around these people. Sure, they threw him a piece of hot, blonde, possibly psychic jailbait, but there are times when I felt like the lone rational voice in Joe’s head: C’mon, man…these people are fuckin’ amateurs without the sense God gave Canadian geese! The longer you hang out with ’em, the worse it’ll be for everyone. Best kill ’em now, burn down their trailer, and make Dottie your padawan learner. Can’t call her “Hit-Girl,” since someone’s already taken that name, but I’m sure you two’ll think of something in between visits to the shooting range and lessons in how best to escape the Long Arm of Forensic Science.
Things don’t end that way because I’m more of a Romantic than Friedkin. Or Tracy Letts for that matter. Somewhere in the Buenos Aires of my mind, Dr. Hannibal Lecter and former Special Agent Clarice Starling dance a moonlit dance of cannibalistic love, and I hope they’ll dance forever. Back in the real world, amongst the blood and desperation, I have good movies to keep me sane and happy. Killer Joe is one of them. I can’t recommend it to everyone. It’s not for the squeamish or the stupid. It’s not for those looking to escape the horrors of everyday life, or the ones for whom everyday life is already a horror. But the rest of you know who you are. And you should see this as soon as possible.