Spoiler Scale (How spoilery is this article on a scale of 1 to 10)? 8
Director William Friedkin will probably best be known for his exemplary career trajectory as an alumnus of the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s – starting with the Oscar-winning The French Connection (1971), continuing with with the shocking The Exorcist (1973), and ending with the self-indulgent flop/masterpiece Sorcerer (1977). Much like director Sidney Lumet’s black swan song, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), Friedkin (now age 77) has gone (back) to the dark side in the twilight of his career. In his last film and first collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Bug (2006), Friedkin and Letts offered a black comedy wrapped in a thin veneer of psychological horror. And with Killer Joe, Friedkin and Letts offer “a high comedy of low taste, a work of blood-spattered skill and conviction made by people sick of timid studio pabulum” (Colin Covert, StarTribune, 8/24/2012).
Set primarily in a trailer park outside of Dallas, twenty-something Chris Smith (the woefully miscast Emile Hirsch, who seems to be channeling Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed (2006)) needs a whopping $6,000 to pay off drug dealers after his mother (Adele) purportedly stole his cocaine that he intended to sell. Chris schemes with his father (Adele’s ex-husband), Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church), to kill Adele for the $50,000 in life insurance for which his younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple in Baby Doll mode) is purportedly the beneficiary. Coincidentally, Chris knows of a police detective who will take care of it for $20,000 – Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, drawing from the same well as his barely-seen Frailty (2001)). Unfortunately, Joe’s fee turns out to be $25,000, payable up front. But Joe decides to break his rule and take a nonfinancial “retainer” as he gazes upon Dottie dancing in the street.
Chris, Ansel, and Ansel’s current wife – the slatternly Sharla (Gina Gershon) – proceed to set Dottie up on a blind date with Joe, and Joe eventually becomes a fixture in the Smith household (and in particular, Dottie’s bedroom). (The wonderful word “slattern” seems to have been resurrected by movie reviewers as a direct result of this film.) Of course, in a turn of events that would make Tennessee Williams proud, Chris’ incestuous desire of Dottie begins to manifest, further complicating matters. And following a scene with a drug kingpin where Letts and Friedkin deliciously mock southern cordiality, Chris forces Joe’s hand. As it turns out, the murder does not payoff, as one of the movie’s faceless character, Rex (Adele’s boyfriend), outsmarts them all (which is not really such a feat). And in the now infamous third act of the film, Joe takes his revenge for the double-crosser in their midst and permanently claims his retainer, which pits him up against Chris – who is armed with a gun and a purpose (to whisk Dottie off to Peru).
On its face, Killer Joe is an exercise in Film Noir 101 recast as a black comedy – or as Friedkin describes it, a “black hole comedy.” The movie certainly earns its NC-17 rating through “graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality.” But to dismiss this film with the flippancy of some critics (e.g., Manohla Dargis, New York Times (7/26/2012) (“a story featuring a family of white-trash clichés and the murderer cum preacher who’s there to bring the peace”)) is simply lazy. Although Killer Joe is Letts’ first play, it has been well-worn on the off-Broadway circuit since 1993, with a 57 year-old Scott Glen playing the title character in a 1998 production. There is no denying that the film takes you places, even if these are places you may not want to go.
What is most interesting about the reactions to this provocative piece is that they seem to reveal more about the viewer than Letts or Friedkin. Indeed, Letts and Friedkin invite you to bring you own baggage. Consider the representation (or as some would characterize it, the objectification) of Dottie. It is made clear in the film that she is a virgin, but her age is never revealed – explicitly or implicitly (as even the Parents’ Guide on imdb.com correctly notes). Yet certain viewers, and even professional reviewers, just seem to assume that Dottie is a underage. (In fact, Temple was age 21 when she shot the film.)
The Third Act
Too much – and too little - has been said about the last 30 minutes of the film. Set entirely within the Smith home, it is certainly the most theatrical portion of the film, and perhaps this aspect should inform an assessment of the content. Yet some reviewers were so disgusted with this sequence that they took it upon themselves to disclose what happens, as if to dissuade viewers from being affected by any positive buzz. To many reviewers, the film purports to use dark humor as a lure only to set the viewer up for this sucker punch of violence for violence’s sake (“when the movie takes a turn for the pitch-dark and gruesomely violent in the last half-hour, the audience begins to get a sense that we may have been the victims of a bait-and-switch operation” with “something sadistic and a little juvenille,” Dana Stevens, Slate (7/27/2012)).
Still, it is curious that even the most politically correct of reviewers fail to appreciate what has to be one of the most dramatic manifestations of the post-feminist myth-busting mantra, “rape is not about sex, it’s about power and control.” In this regard, nothing intrinsically sexual or offensive ever comes in contact with Sharla’s mouth. In essence, she is forced to perform fellatio on a chicken leg, which she she would have enjoyed, and planned on, placing in her mouth in a whole different context. Rather, we experience the repulsion of rape as a physiologically desexualized event.
And yet Joe clearly brings himself to an orgasm, and as he does, Sharla recoils in shame. Pushed into a corner, Sharla tests Joe’s cool exterior, and ultimately, the only way Joe can exercise his power is by another person’s degradation – a point that is only emphasized by the removal of any sexual organs from the act of rape. (See the discussion of Joe and traditional American values below.)
This is yet another instance where the viewer brings his or her own baggage to the film. Why is this sequence seen as dark absurdist comedy by some but simply repulsive by others? Do the former recognize that they are being manipulated into “seeing” something “worse” than is actually being portrayed? Are the latter really offended because they see no difference between a chicken leg and a penis? Does a viewer’s reaction differ based on gender? (Of the 38 reviews on Metacritic, the average score by male reviewers is 66, while the average score of female reviewers is 49.) Or is there something else there entirely?
Traditional American Values
It is also apparent from the characterization of Joe that Letts and Friedkin have something to say about the duality of the American identity and its so-called “traditional values.” In a stroke of perfect casting, McConaughey exhibits a cool exterior with enough good ol’ boy nuance to temporarily mask a much darker interior.
True to the conventions typical for heroes and anti-heroes, even the ferocious pitbull T-Bone refuses to bark at Joe. But what could possibly be more morally contradictory than a police detective who moonlights as a hitman?
From the outset, the TV is as pervasive a presence in this film as it is perceived to be a part of American life. Each member of the Smith family is entranced by the TV at some point in the film – Dottie with her kung fu and cartoons, Ansel with his four-wheel races, and Chris with a prophetic sequence from a generic black-and-white noir film. But as Americans also view this obsession as a fundamental weakness in character (as we are constantly reminded of how we waste our lives away seven to eight hours a day), Joe’s contempt of the din and distraction of the TV escalates to a crescendo at the end of the film. And at a point where Ansel has endured the humiliation of seeing pornographic pictures of his wife’s infidelity and her violation by another man, he screams in outrage only when Joe finally smashes the TV.
Americans also have a complex relationship with food. We love food in all its varieties, as well as the rituals that go along with its consumption. It is one of the few over-indulgences that can be shared by all socioeconomic classes in America. And yet, for decades, we have been obsessed with dieting as we are constantly reminded that we lead the world in childhood and adult obesity and diabetes. So appropriately, the final act of the film displays makes use of another motif – violence by food.
Besides the chicken leg sequence, in his melee with Chris, Joe reaches for another item that common sits on the shelves of an American cupboard (because apparently his fist just was not doing the job).
And yet, food also brings all of us together. On his first “date” with Dottie, where Joe appears with handpicked flowers, he lights a candle and sets it on the kitchen table, as he revels at the sight of one of the best examples of American cuisine – the tuna casserole.
Yet moments earlier, Joe leered at the domesticated Dottie’s posterior as she pulled the casserole out of the oven.
As the date progresses, Joe asks Dottie to change into her dress she bought for the dinner – in front of him. Yet once Dottie gets to the point where Joe instructs her to take off her “brassière” (a curiously traditional choice of term), this would-be gentleman refuses to turn around until she finally has the dress on. Of course, Friedkin makes sure that we as viewers are privy to see right through Joe, in more ways than one.
Ultimately, Joe deflowers Dottie by appealing to her one experience of “a pure love” – a crush she had when she was 12 years-old. That’s not a very gentlemanly thing to do on a first date, but beneath all of the artifice of manners and courtship, Joe ultimately views Dottie is as his retainer - his property.
It is also telling that in the final act, Joe’s acts ofl violence against Sharla are sparked directly by her verbal insult. As a gentleman (of sorts), it is ultimately the rudeness he cannot tolerate. (“No need for name-calling. I never called you any names. I am a guest here! You be polite!”) Like Endearing Charm edged out Legal Tender in the horse race Chris bet on earlier in the film, Joe forgoes forcing Rex to cash the insurance check and instead brings the worthless piece of paper back to the Smith family to justify keeping his retainer. Joe’s motivation is a twisted amalgamation of fairness and chivalry, as he pleads with the terrified Ansel and Sharla to make sure that Chris does not interfere with Joe’s plans to make an honest woman of their daughter. And as Chris and Dottie enter the scene, they join in a staged family dinner. With Sharla’s face still covered in blood, she pours the iced tea and dispenses the potato salad. Joe calls for a family member to say grace, and Dottie obliges with a rather dubious invocation of Jesus.
Essentially, Joe is that parent who doggedly insists that the family sit down for dinner every night, as if doing so will somehow temper all of the dysfunction. And here, that notion is taken to the point of satire. Eventually, the emotions at the table explodes. Through the title character, sexism, perversity, degradation, and violence are all inextricably interwoven into the fabric of traditional American values.
A Cinderella Story
In what may be one of the only trustworthy characterizations of this film by Friedkin, Killer Joe is a Cinderella tale, as the images that appear toward the beginning and end of the film reveal.
To varying degrees, every character underestimates and undervalues Dottie. Her mother literally tried to smother her. Her father, with whom she lives, comments that pimping her out to a hired killer “might do her good.” And then there is the story of why she loves her brother. (When she was young and upset from learning that her parents were getting a divorce, “He just laid on top of me, stretched his body out like this, and laid on top of me until I stopped crying. We ain’t ever talked about it ever.”) And yet she is also shielded by Chris (“I don’t want Dottie looking at her own stepmother’s pussy!”) and Ansel (“I ain’t talking about this in front of Dottie!”). Suffice to say, it is clear that she will never be heard or happy in the Smith’s trailer castle.
Yet Dottie is clearly playing a certain role to her own advantage – a role that Chris is only vaguely aware of, as is evidenced by a brief dream sequence of Chris where she lures a lizard into her hand and appeases it by blowing gently upon it. She is not as stupid as she often deliberately appears to be.
To the contrary, she feigns sleepwalking to learn about the plan to kill her mother. She displays a certain savvy even in her most vulnerable moment (her date with Joe):
Joe: I’d really like to see that dress.
Dottie: It wasn’t right.
Joe: I’d like to see it anyway.
Dottie: How are we gonna kill my momma?
Joe: Well, that’s not appropriate dinner conversation, Dottie.
Dottie: Unless you poison her [laughs] … Will you be the detective who investigates?
Joe: Probably not. Sometimes.
Dottie: Is that a problem?
Joe: That’s a convenience.
Dottie: So are homes.
And after she has removed her last stitch of clothing, completely out of context, she utters the word “babies.”
In the final scene with her brother before the endgame, Chris proposes that they run away together to Peru and reassures her, “We can do this – we can pull this off.” But Dottie responds to an inattentive Chris – “Not if somebody makes me mad.”
Indeed, five minutes from the end of the film, the unresolved question seems to be: Who will win Dottie – Joe or Chris? But as Joe/Chris order Dottie to stay seated/get up from the table (“Dottie doesn’t have a say in the matter”), which eventually devolves into a fight, Dottie picks up the gun, shoots Chris, shoots Ansel, and takes aim at Joe while simultaneously revealing that she is pregnant. And as her finger slips onto the trigger, we are ultimately left with a different question: What will Dottie do?
Despite the title, Killer Joe is Dottie’s story. And Killer Joe is Juno Temple’s movie.
Postscript: Much Ado About Violence
The title should key the viewer in to the level of violence to expect from this film. Yet only one person dies on screen at the very end. Arguably, the most visceral scene involves a single punch to the face from a man to a woman. From a pair of Friedkin’s favorite shots (over the shoulder), the effect of Sharla’s battle of wills with Joe is evident.
With a mass shooting tied to the release of one of the more violent superhero movies of the year, The Dark Knight Rises, we are in the midst of a whole new round of allegations about the escalation of violence in movies as desensitizing the masses in general. If a viewer feels that way, then Killer Joe is as fair a target of righteous indignation as about two or three dozen other films released this year (including Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, released on Christmas Day no less). But even in the midst of a media age that has seen a proliferation of TV shows like Game of Thrones, R-rated video games, and everything-goes on the internet, viewers still expect an extraordinary experience when they venture to the cinema. In this context, how can we deny the right of an artist to make an emotional impact? If a filmmaker is not permitted to shock, then he or she ceases to act with the requisite freedom of an artist. And more to the point, what can be said about the viewer who refuses to be challenged?