Sunday, May 5, 2013
Short Take: Killer Joe
This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
Killer Joe has some impressive behind-the-scenes credentials: an Oscar-winning director in William Friedkin, and Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracy Letts as screenwriter. The film, though, is a piece of misanthropic pulp that congratulates itself on the depths of its nastiness. The title character, played by Matthew McConaughey, is a Dallas police detective with a sideline as a hitman. He’s hired by a young, ne’er-do-well drug dealer (Emile Hirsch) and the dealer’s father (Thomas Haden Church). They want him to take out the dealer’s mother so they can collect on the insurance policy. They are unable to pay his fee up front, so he offers to let them pay a "retainer": the sexual favors of the dealer’s somewhat addled younger sister (Juno Temple). The dealer and his family, which includes Gina Gershon as his stepmother, are probably the most amoral, indecent, and stupidest examples of working-poor whites in the history of American movies. Friedkin and Letts have quite a time chortling at them. The class bigotry on display is almost enough to make one look back longingly on the hipster-snob sneering of the Coen brothers. The dealer and his family cannot do anything right, which ultimately results in a vicious reprisal from the detective once he realizes he will never be paid. This comeuppance takes up the film’s final act, and the scene is about as vile as they come. (The treatment of the Gershon character is especially despicable.) It’s hard to say who is more demeaned by this finale: the characters or the audience. McConaughey is the only good reason to see the picture. He has an eerie calm as the psychopathic detective, and what is most frightening is how methodical the character’s violence is once it explodes. He is compelling in his quieter scenes as well. His character’s seduction of the dealer’s sister is a particular standout. Caleb Deschanel provided the excellent cinematography. Letts based the script on his 1991 play of the same name.