There are truths about human nature that only brutality in its rawest form can depict. Such is the concept embraced with both verve and style by William Friedkin in KILLER JOE, a tale of moral compasses gone askew, dysfunctional family dynamics taken to their logical extreme, and human life reduced to a commodity on a par with pork belly futures. That it’s also wildly funny in its absurd excess will seem odd at first as the story begins to run its breakneck pace on the highway to Hell,
The setting is a trailer park rife with angry, desperate people whose dreams are as ragged as their lives. An already dismal existence becomes worse when Chris (Emile Hirsch) comes up short with people who are more than happy to kill him in lieu of the money he owes them. Taking his problems to his dullard of a father, Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church), does little more than lead to yet another argument with his cold-hearted step-mother Charla (Gina Gershon), a tough cookie who can make meeting him at the door without her panties an affront rather than a come-on. Chris convinces his father that the answer to all their problems is the eponymous Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a hit man, him and the insurance money that will come of having Chris’ mother, Ansel’s ex, killed. Come to Dottie (Juno Temple), that is, Chris’ tousle-haired, wide-eyed, and sweetly compliant china doll of a little sister. That the plan seems reasonable to all concerned, and even to the audience is just the beginning of the seductively slippery slope the tale becomes, as the price of not going through with the plan becomes higher than the moral quandary involved.
For McConaughey, this is a role to change his cinematic paradigm. Easily dismissed as a pretty face and a killer set of abs in his numerous and forgettable rom-coms, here he is allowed to do something he’s rarely been allowed to do before. Act. From beneath hooded lids, he exudes the cold danger of a cobra as well as the hypnotic attraction. There is a disquieting stillness of an absolute and ruthless lack of conscience, stirred only by a lack of civility in others, and the sight of Dottie dancing in a pool of light as she waits for him and her family to strike a deal. He becomes courtly, with a smile that is genuine in its delight at this fragile creature that is put at his disposal as a marker for his fee. Temple is a match for him, concealing beneath Dottie’s pert face and blank expression a troubled psyche confused by rage and childlike dreams of Prince Charming and Barbie.
Friedkin is in his best form, studying predator and prey in many different incarnations. His direction is spare, pointed, and every bit as ruthless as his title character. Throughout there is the palpable sense of imminent danger with never a moment of respite, coupled with the suspense of when, exactly, it will erupt. It is always, aggressively, imminent. It heightens the absurdity of the characters and their plight, finding the blackest of humor as well as a high refinement of pathos.
The beatings are fierce in KILLER JOE, physical and emotional, but it is the emotional beatings that resonate the most. Hirsch, with his face rendered into a Technocolor™ disaster is somehow less disturbing than the genuine liking for Hirsch by the man responsible. The image that, no doubt, will be most talked about will be the one involving a fried chicken leg and what Joe compels Charla to do with it, but consider instead as equally powerful the expression on Hirsch’s face as the full implications of what he has gotten himself into take hold. It is an expression of a silent scream, stark yet potent in its horror at not just the act it is witnessing, but at all that has come before it and that has led inexorably through chance and circumstance to this moment.
The outlook throughout KILLER JOE is bleak, but the humor is robust, and very, very black. It‘s the sort of funny that encompasses both definitions of the word and that is watched, as often as not, with clenched teeth and the temptation to cover ones eyes fighting with the much stronger temptation to see what happens next.