At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Killer Joe “2011”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Killer Joe “2011”

MPAA Rating: Unrated/Genre: Southern Gothic Crime/Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Marc Macaulay/Runtime: 102 minutes

I think it can safely be said that, if you were to ask me for a list of some of the more underrated directors of the past 5 decades or so of movie magic, one of the names that I would without question put down on that list would be none other than the recently passed William Friedkin. Indeed not only is this the man who gave the world such noteworthy commercial and critical hits as The French Connection and The Exorcist, but he also gave us other gems as well including 1980’s Cruising, 1990’s The Guardian, 2000’s Rules of Engagement, 2006’s Bug, and of course one of my favorite 80s films ever 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A. Yet among the entries to be found amongst this late icon of cinema’s filmography there is one that I definitely feel has tragically not been able to find the audience that perhaps it ought to have when it was first released all the way back in 2011. That being a Southern Gothic crime saga, and slice of cinema I happen to reviewing for you today, known simply as Killer Joe. Indeed here is a slice of cinema that can best be described as a film noir if it also happened to contain the most dysfunctional southern family unit this side of an episode of The Jerry Springer Show. More than that however, this is also an extremely twisted story that permits both pitch dark comedy and quite visceral content to come together at the table and enjoy each other’s company for a spell. Indeed to say that this slice of cinema is not for everyone might be a wee bit of a mild understatement, but for those of you out there who are able to stomach what this particular film is offering the viewer in its 102-minute runtime then I promise that you will find more than a fair bit to enjoy here even if you are never going to entirely be sure if that’s a good thing or not. Yes it most assuredly is not a perfect cinematic outing by any stretch of the imagination, but with the aid of quality work both behind and especially in front of the camera by a small yet more than capable cast of talented players Killer Joe is one film that manages to be delightfully quite trashy and riveting in equal measure to say nothing of one of the most glorious anti-KFC (yes as in the iconic chicken restaurant) PSA’s that I have managed to see in quite some time to boot.

The plot is as follows: An adaptation of a 1993 play by noted playwright Tracy Letts (who also wrote the screenplay), Killer Joe gets its thrilling story underway by taking us to a trailer park in the iconic locale of West Dallas, Texas in the middle of a fierce rainstorm. It is here where we see a young man by the name of Chris Smith decide to pay his dad Ansel and his 2nd wife Sharla a rather impromptu visit due to Chris’ mother, and Ansel’s first wife, Adele kicking him out of the house. Besides that though, we soon also learn that this wonder woman and a half also made the “brilliant decision” to make off with a bunch of drugs that Chris was meant to sell and now Chris is in deep a solid 6 grand to some highly unsavory characters and lest he wish to face heavy penalty to his person he needs to come up with the money and fast. Fortunately for our more than slightly sleazy boy wonder we see that he has already cooked up a plan to help him get his hands on more than enough of the proverbial cold hard cash necessary to not only pay off his debt, but also take of other issues at the same time. A plan that involves hiring a contract killer to get rid of dear ol’ mom Adele and, upon her “tragic and untimely demise”, getting ahold of Mom’s 50,000-dollar life insurance policy through Chris’ younger sister Dottie as she is the sole beneficiary of the policy in question. Along with that, we see that Chris and his father make the agreement that, upon giving the killer their payment for a job well done, they will then take the rest and split it 4 ways. Thus, we see that Chris soon reaches out to a man by the name of Joe Cooper to take the job. A man who, among other attributes, happens to be a member of that noteworthy community known as law enforcement yet who also has a fairly profitable little side gig of being a killer for hire (hence the film’s title). Unfortunately for Chris and Ansel we soon see that although Joe does agree to meet with them to discuss the opportunity he also makes it clear during that initial meeting that he has a list of prerequisites for any job that he takes on with the key one being that he gets paid up front. A bit on the problematic side because neither one of these witless wonders has that kind of money to their name at this point in time. Fortunately (?) for the duo we see that Joe soon decides to present them with a rather distinct….counteroffer of sorts. It seems that our charming killer has found himself quite taken with Dottie and so, until he can get paid in cash, he’ll take Dottie as a kind of “retainer” if you will. Of course as the old saying goes “sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men don’t always go as planned”. Suffice it to say this is definitely going to be one of those times…..

Now right off, it should be said that the work done behind the camera on this film is potent yet quite well-done. This starts with the taut yet riveting work done by director William Friedkin at the helm. Indeed Friedkin does a masterful job at immersing us into this very much cliché at times landscape of rednecks, criminal behavior, and sheer Southern fried idiocy with potent physicality and pathos-driven viscerality thus ensuring that this slice of cinema is a taut and grim cinematic outing. In addition, we see that through slowly but surely revealing the kind of people his characters genuinely are, Friedkin is also able to do a remarkable job at showcasing both the sinisterness, or possibility for sinister behavior, that is a part of every single person. As a result, we see that this is able to ensure that when that sinisterness bursts forth that we are on the edge of our seats in anticipation to see just what exactly it is about to unfold on screen. We also see that, through his tenacity for both ensuring every detail has a purpose and a drive to get the maximum impact from an emotional perspective as possible, that Friedkin and the costume department do a masterful job with the look of the individual characters right down to the sleeve on Haden Church’s suit jacket constantly coming undone, but especially so with the character of Joe himself. Indeed by constantly dressing him in dark-colored attire, we see that the film is able to present this character as the personification of the time-honored “black-hat equals villainous” cowboy trope that is such a time-honored element of cinema and just pop culture in general that we really aren’t all that surprised when who Joe presents himself as on the outside slips away and we see the monster lurking just underneath the surface. In the same way we see that, by deploying the time-honored Southern cliché of family meal time with the aid of that iconic Southern food group that is fried chicken, Friedkin and co. are able to unleash a sense of depravity upon us that we might not be expecting, but that we also aren’t likely to forget either. We also see that the camerawork done here by Caleb Deschanel does a brilliant job not only at showcasing for us the closed-off emotional perspective and life in general of each character, but also by framing shots in doorways and alleyways at times is able to gift the film with an implied vibe of befuddlement whilst still giving the characters quite a few avenues they could traverse in a given situation. Lastly I most assuredly think that praise must also be forwarded to this slice of cinema’s screenwriter, one Tracy Letts, for his incredible skill at conjuring up not only a landscape of characters that are equal parts despicable, captivating, and yet also oddly relatable to an extent. Rather, it is also for the fact that Letts has a wonderful way at making sure that the dialogue uttered is as sharp as a dagger and also for ensuring that this story, for all the things that go down within it, is astonishingly realistic to the point that if you ran into people like this during your day to day you wouldn’t be all that surprised. Suffice it to say then that this film might not be for everyone, but if you can stomach it the work behind the camera definitely helps make it worthwhile.

Of course, the other big element that helps this slice of cinema work on the level that it ultimately manages to attain would have to be the potent work done by the small yet extremely well-chosen cast of players in front of the camera as well. Without question though, the highlight here is Matthew McConaughey in the titular role. Indeed, even when he had his romantic comedy lead phase, I have always enjoyed Matthew McConaughey as an actor and here he is nothing short of absolutely riveting from beginning to end. I mean here is a part that, much like virtually any of the iconic characters that McConaughey has played over the years, necessitates a degree of relaxed assertiveness blended together with a distinct devil may care charm that proves to be equal parts likable as well as a bit on the uneasy side in equal measure.  At the same time though, we soon see that McConaughey does a phenomenal job of little by little showcasing that, unlike the majority of the characters that he has played in this manner, behind the calm exterior and hypnotic allure there is a destructive and blazing temper to be found that, when unleashed, results in some of the more jaw-dropping moments that this film has to offer a movie goer. Suffice it to say that not only is this one of the more underrated efforts on McConaughey’s filmography, but it also makes for easily the most watchable character in the entire film as well. Thankfully, we see that the rest of the small yet potent cast is more than able to match the intensity brought by McConaughey and deliver winning performances in their own right. This starts with Thomas Haden Church who, in the role of Ansel, is an absolute delight as this guy who might not be the brightest bulb in the pack, but at the same time he is very much aware of that fact and not ashamed of it. Indeed even when this slice of cinema provides the viewer with moments of brutality that will leave them on the edge of your seat, Haden Church still does a great job at providing the film with a fairly consistent river of dry comedy that is sure to leave you at the very least chuckling. Alongside Haden Church, we also get a top-notch performance from the highly underrated Emile Hirsch in the role of Chris that is a delightful mix of sniveling, desperation, sheer stupidity, and anger all rolled into one. We are also treated to a highly effective turn here from Gina Gershon in the role of Ansel’s wife Sharla. Indeed there really isn’t a whole lot I can say about her role in this for fear of spoilers, but trust me when I say that this is one performance that you aren’t likely to forget about anytime soon. Far and away though the performance that manages to be the most intriguingly complicated out of all the performers is the one given by Juno Temple in the role of Dottie. Indeed here is a young woman who manages to blend perfectly a degree of befuddlement together with a degree of awareness in such a way that you are consistently and brilliantly left to figure out when she is one or the other. Suffice it to say then that this film might have issues, but the work done by this cast is not one of them.

All in all and at the end of the day, is the 2011 slice of cinema that is Killer Joe a perfect slice of cinema by any stretch of the imagination? Honestly as twistedly amusing as that would be I have to be honest and say that is most assuredly not the case. At the same time however, does that make this the worst slice of cinema since that McConaughey movie with him in the suicide forests of Japan that also happened to be directed by the guy who did, of all things, Good Will Hunting? Thankfully, I can also say that is most assuredly not the case either (and yes that IS a real movie and NO it is definitely not worth spending precious time watching so please do not try to seek it out). Rather, I would say that this is one slice of cinema that, due by and large to content, is one that is most assuredly not going to be everyone’s favorite bucket of fried chicken, but there are going to be people out there who find themselves enjoying this from beginning to end. In that regard dear reader, I must admit that I am definitely one of the people in the latter category even if I must also admit that I find it more than a bit unnerving that I do. Yes this slice of cinema is one that has to have undoubtedly one of the bleakest streaks of dark humor I have seen in some time, yes the dynamics in this movie definitely take the word “dysfunctional” to places that most “mainstream cinema” would do everything in their power to ensure you never have to see, and yes there are moments in this slice of cinema (including one that will definitely make you think twice about having KFC for quite some time after watching this) which will leave your jaw on the floor and eyes in a state of shock due to the sheer viscerality that is being put on display for your “viewing pleasure”. With that in mind however, there is also no denying that the work done behind the camera by the late yet great William Friedkin and co. manages to not only drop you feet first into this dysfunctional southern world, but then leave you on the edge of your seat wondering just how in the world this group of bumbling and bickering morons is going to make their way out of this mess (if at all) whilst the work done in front of the camera by the more than capable cast of players all do a magnificent job at making sure each of their characters feels less like a stereotype and more like a fully realized human being with particular regard to McConaughey who, in the titular role, looks like he is having an absolute blast and then some in the part. Suffice it to say then that Killer Joe might be trashy, relentless, and brutal, but it is ALSO entertaining…..even if KFC might have something to say to the contrary. Make of that what thou will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give Killer Joe “2011” a solid 3.5 out of 5.