Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #412
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: September 8, 2011 (Venice), July 27, 2012 (United States)
Sub-Genre: Crime Fiction
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $3,700,000
Running Time: 102 minutes
Director: William Friedkin
Producers: Nicolas Chartier, Scott Einbinder
Screenplay: Tracy Letts
Based on Killer Joe by Tracy Letts
Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel
Score: Tyler Bates
Editing: Darrin Navarro
Studios: Voltage Pictures, Worldview Entertainment, ANA Media
Distributor: LD Entertainment
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church, Marc Macaulay, Gralen Bryant Banks, Carol Sutton, Danny Epper, Jeff Galpin, Scott A. Martin, Gregory C. Bachaud, Charley Vance
Suggested Audio Drumsticks ♫
 Clarence Carter “Strokin”
 Tyler Bates “Rabbits Scream”
There are many things in life which you can choose but family isn’t one of them. It’s life’s greatest lottery and often, by the time you’ve discovered that you were born into the wrong brood, it’s too late to do a damn thing about it. Take hapless Dottie for example; if she had known what she was letting herself in for before she started gestating within her mother’s womb, she would have learned to drive a 4×4 and run over the old girl’s uterus to save herself the misery. Contract killer Joe Cooper is a fairly rotten apple to the pulp and even he looks like an attractive surrogate when compared to the rest of the Smith household. If you’re looking for a film to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside then I would suggest you walk on by as Killer Joe certainly ain’t it.
William Friedkin is undoubtedly one of the finest filmmakers to have graced us with their presence over the last half a century but his films don’t always find their audience until way after the fact. Indeed, two of his best, Sorcerer and Rampage, didn’t receive the adulation they deserved until years after their release and Killer Joe looks like suffering a similar fate. Friedkin was reluctant, nay downright insistent, that this slick film noir not be trimmed in order to attain the R-rating which would have opened it up to the far wider audience it deserved and consequently it left the box office faster than O.J. Simpson can flee a crime scene. All of this despite the fact that it garnered praise from almost all quarters and many regard it to be his best movie in thirty years. Sometimes it must feel preferable remaining anonymous.
This greasy Southern-fried masterpiece doesn’t miss out on achieving perfection by a long chalk and time will surely be kind but I’m here to speed that whole process up some as this, my featherless friends, is as close as you will come to witnessing a modern-day contender to The Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple bar none. It deserves to be seen, even if that’s through gritted teeth and a faceful of strategically placed fingers. It marks the second collaboration between Friedkin and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) after the director’s 2006 film Bug. Letts adapts his own words for screen and entrusts his vision to one of the industry’s safest pairs of hands, with Caleb Deschanel (Winter’s Tale, The Right Stuff) offering his own optical interpretation of how it feels to be trapped in a trailer park with a gaggle of undesirables whilst waiting for that payout.
Let’s start with mom shall we? Or should that be stepmom? Gina Gershon’s odious character Sharla introduces herself at around the two-minute mark…using her vagina no less. As the trailer door swings open to reveal her bushy growler, you would be forgiven for thinking that Peter Dinklage is making a cameo, sporting three weeks stubble growth. Nope, that’s just Sharla. Most women trounce about their homestead topless from time to time but this slattern slag is so much of a pig in swill that she prefers bottomless, even when her own son comes knocking for a cold beer. It isn’t long before we realize that she’s parasitic and, in alcohol-sedated numskull Ansel, (Thomas Haden Church), it looks like she has found a most willing host. Between them, this slovenly pair make contraception seem like the way to go but not in time to save their own kids from the shame.
Chris (Emile Hirsch) has done gotten himself ideas above his station and, after careful consultation with pops, has decided to hire a hitman to snuff out his birth mother. The apple appears to have fallen rather close to the tree stump with this one, although the young man has at least three more brain cells to rub together than his old man. That makes a grand total of five, or half of ten, if you wish. Such an abundance of brain matter can’t be frittered so they pool their mental resources and speed-dial homicide detective Joe (Matthew McConaughey), hoping he will assist them in getting their slithery paws on mom’s life insurance jackpot, thus paying off the local reprobates. That’s right; there are those even more despicable than the Smiths and a lot more trailers in this park.
Let’s not forget Dottie (Juno Temple). This naïve unpicked lily is the exception to the Smith rule. You see, for as much as she still gives off that air of poor white trash, Dottie possesses something which the rest of her sorry clan threw in the garbage can and set fire to many moons ago, that being innocence. It is here that things begin to get interesting. Actually, scrap that. Things get interesting the very moment Friedkin takes his seat behind the camera as this chap has a grasp on the most valuable of our senses that few other filmmakers can boast of. However, it you’re still hopeful of a feel-good movie, then it is upon Dottie’s introduction to Joe that you kind of get your wish. Just remember to be careful what you wish for.
McConaughey is off the stratosphere as the disarming reptilian offered the bargaining tool of Dottie as a retainer while the Smiths await their windfall. He now has sole ownership of the teenage girl until which time as they put their hands in their pockets and pay him for services rendered. Moreover, he is clearly not the man to be trifled with and is as cold and calculated a cucumber as they come. However, if you are searching for a winning dynamic then try this on for size. He is clearly a very bad man, has no problem with doing very bad things, and his silent moments alone speak fairly crystal about the fact that you shouldn’t extend him that Thanksgiving invite and perhaps leave state instead… quickly! But, for all that gristle, here’s the lean. He falls for Dottie’s immaculate allure and an unlikely love story commences. Isn’t that just the sweetest thing you ever did hear?
Having said that, you’ll need to be keeping those eyes on swivels to spot the saccharine amongst the Smiths’ sludge as Killer Joe ain’t no rom-com. I know what you’re thinking: McConaughey right? The dude has already found his niche and Kate Hudson has to have a new film coming out soon doesn’t she? Negative. The worm has turned and boy, has it turned, as this man is now making the kind of choices which I believe place him in the league of the De Niros and Pacinos, and he appears to be right at home in the uppermost tier. Here he is utterly magnanimous with his gift, putting it about like Sharla after two bottles of Wild Turkey, only with far more class.
English rose Temple, in a role that Jennifer Lawrence was desperate to snag, is just as entrancing and courageous to boot as she is forced, not only to disrobe regularly, but also to keep on acting whilst in her most vulnerable state. She does so brilliantly and this places both Joe and the audience in something of a quandary. Part of us wishes to throw her a towel and request she cover up but that part is pretty diminutive in truth. She openly gives us her chastity in the same moment that Joe becomes mindful of just how honorably he should snatch it from her. The pair share more chemistry without words than any rom-com could ever dream of supplying and the dialogue that punctuates each silence is delivered by two actors at the very top of their game. When you consider that Temple is currently twenty-six years old, and standing butt naked before one of the finest the circuit has to offer, that speaks volumes for this young lady’s immense potential.
Anyhoots, back to the rest of the rowdy rabble. Gershon’s performance is also worthy of having an alcoholic spritzer named in its honor. “The Sharla” has a pretty good ring to it and she earns her distinction by giving us another example of how this woman will stop at nothing to put herself into her art. One particular painfully protracted scene around the Smiths’ dinner table pays testament to her commitment and offers sound reasoning for this being released as an NC-17 on its release. I will never again look at a chicken drumstick the same way thanks to her deep-throated bird flossing and her snot-streaming histrionics are bang on the money. Indeed, almost the entire final act unfolds within this single location, but it never feels limited or overly theatrical, just intimate and immensely mesmerizing. It’s a car crash for sure but, if we’re particularly honest with ourselves, many of us slam on the brakes for reconnaissance the moment we spot a pile-up on the freeway. In the same manner here, we just cannot look away for a solitary second.
The whole ensemble is excellent, as is Letts’ script, which is tighter than the crotch of Joe’s denims. Moreover, the entire screen is dripping with candy, and provides all the evidence we should need that Friedkin still knows how to operate his equipment. Deschanel’s photography and the score from Tyler Bates prove to be inseparable bedfellows and the whole affair reeks of class, despite any persistent aroma of fried chicken. Friedkin allows us to gatecrash the trailer; lets us meet the lowest kind of deep American litter up close and personal, warts and all, then seals off all available exits and insists we break bread with them. Just as stomach rot begins to creep in, he reminds us of his tender love story, and suddenly we’re all in for second helpings. Now that is a director who knows how to stymie his audience.
I am assured that Killer Joe will, one day, be understood on a far wider level than presently. In a world obsessed with dumbing down in order to maintain the monopoly, he is disinterested in pandering, the result being a movie as black as Sharla’s disheveled snatch and just as primed for further exploration. I’m not altogether sure of where I was in 2011, or what the hell I was up to come to think of it, but I do know this: “Killer” Joe Cooper has more than justified his place at the head of the table. I may not have eaten chicken from the bone since I watched Gershon performing poultry fellatio but I would say its just a matter of time after seeing those cute dimples mid ingestion. If you ever doubted Friedkin’s table manners then shame on you and I’ll save y’all a wing.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
For the Pelt-Nuzzlers: Sexuality is key here, from Sharla’s over-expressive pelvic thrusts to Dottie’s susceptible sensuality and wide-eyed wonderment, we are presented with both beauty and beast in equal measure. It is hard not to comment further on Temple’s brave turn and harder still not to find it tantalizing. However, thanks to the thoughtful approach to sensitive subject matters, it never feels exploitative in the slightest. Just necessary. You really want to see what an actor can bring to the table, strip them bare, find that focus, and then yell “action”.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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