In many ways, there may not be much to criticize in the new movie Killer Joe, directed by William Friedkin from a screenplay adapted by Tracy Letts based on her play. It’s not boring and it really keeps the tension revved up. It’s very skillfully made and certainly one could make the argument that it definitely works on its own terms. But it just didn’t go there for me. I admired the craftsmanship that went into it, but it just never quite made it. There are many reasons for this, but I think my main issue is that it does what it does, but that’s all that it does. It never really rises above what it is, but what ultimately disappointed me is that it seemed more than satisfied not to; it felt more than happy to be exploitive while pretending to be much more than that.
The story is about a bunch of “white trash” working class semi-degenerates, the vice is nice, but incest is best kind. They’re all stereotypes, though I have to say that they are probably some of the best written stereotypes I have ever seen on the screen. Letts and Friedkin may be more than happy never to dig deeper than skin, but it must be said that what they find on the surface is quite entertaining. These characters all join forces to hire Killer Joe, a psychopathic Dallas police detective who moonlights as a hired killer (the union ain’t what it use to be, I guess), to kill someone for their insurance policy. Since they don’t have Joe’s payment up front, Letts decides to have them pay Joe by borrowing the basic plot of Tennessee Williams’ play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (and the movie adapted from it, Babydoll)—he’ll defer payment as long as he can screw Dottie, the child like youngest offspring of the family. And what happens as a result is the best laid plans of mice and men, etc., etc.
One way you can tell that a movie is interested in little more than giving the audience what they want and nothing else is the way nudity is used: the only full frontal is by the women; not the men. The only reason one does this is not to create a realistic and downbeat background to the action, but to sell tickets. The only male nudity is of Matthew McConaughey’s rear end (not his front, but his rear)—again, one only show’s McConaughey’s ass to sell tickets (which is understandable, since it is a great ass). It’s the Roger Corman approach to filmmaking and it’s certainly hard to argue against something that works.
The plot is a whirlwind of film noir double and triple crosses and is very clever with some surprises I didn’t see coming. It’s probably the best part of the screenplay. The individual scenes have their moments, but they also tend to be over long here and there, drawn out in ways that often work well on stage where the pleasure is not just the drama but the performances of the actors (like an aria in a opera); on film, these same sorts of scenes can overstay their welcome at times. And there’s one that’s a real howler that has to be seen to be believed involving a chicken leg used in a way that I think probably stopped KFC from paying a product placement fee (I kept thinking of Oscar Wilde’s comment on Charles Dickens’ book The Old Curiosity Shop, “one would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing”). There is also an odd tete a tete between Joe and Chris Smith, the character who started the whole ball rolling, that takes place at Six Flags on an off day—a scene whose topic and purpose is repeated in the immediate one that follows it (redundant much?). And don’t get me started on the unnecessarily ambiguous ending.
The cast is filled out by a host of excellent performances: Thomas Hayden Church, Gena Gershon, Emile Hirsh and Juno Temple. They all attack the rolls as if they were doing Shakespeare (or at least Jacobean tragedy) and you’ve got to give them that. For me, Church gave the best performance, but everyone had their moments and for McConaughey, this may be the best thing he’ll ever do.
Don’t get me wrong. I know I’ve had a lot of fun letting this movie have it, but to be fair, the audience I was with, as well as the friend who accompanied me, seemed to really get into it. So I can’t say you’ll be disappointed if you go see it. But for me, it was the sort of film you see if you can’t see The Killer Inside Me, a far superior movie also about a psychopathic lawman, a film I will not soon forget in a way that I probably will for Killer Joe.