Review contains spoilers.
Chris Smith, a Texan drug dealer, finds himself owing money to bikies that he cannot afford to pay off. The bikies set a deadline which will cost Chris his life if his debt isn’t recovered in full. In a panic, he visits the home of his father Ansel who lives with his girlfriend Sharla and Chris’ younger sister Dottie.
Chris convinces Ansel that the best course of action is to kill Chris’ mother who left Ansel many years ago. She has a lucrative $50,000 life insurance policy that is in Dottie’s name which Chris suggests they can split amongst the family. Ansel is half asleep and is also the type of person that doesn’t want to cause a fuss. He agrees to go ahead with the plan to hire a hit man to bump off his ex-wife.
Killer Joe begins in a similar fashion to the Coen Brother’s classic film Fargo. It is a tale set in a small American town with idiotic criminals who get in over their head. It’s the age old lesson that crime is never simple and there are always consequences.
The hit man that the Smith family hire is a detective named Joe Cooper, played in a memorably creepy fashion by Matthew McConaughey. After a brief introduction to Joe, it quickly becomes apparent that he doesn’t really kill for money but because he is a deeply disturbed psychopath who derives sexual pleasure from some seriously weird fetishes.
When the Smith family realise they cannot afford Joe’s services, things begin to get messy. Joe takes a liking to young Dottie and he offers to take her as ‘a retainer’ until the insurance money comes through. Although we suspect Chris might actually harbour some incestuous attraction to Dottie, he is also desperate for money and agrees to trade her like cattle. Ansel of course, just goes along for the ride.
Killer Joe is a twisted black comedy that is brought to life by some wonderful performances and a bizarre final act when it all goes to hell in a hand basket. This is a film that is littered with small touches that absolutely make the film.
First of all, Chris’ plan is hilariously pathetic. He owes six thousand dollars and plans to pay it off with the insurance money. But when they calculate that Cooper gets half and the remainder of the money is to be divided in fourths, he will only *just* have enough money to pay off his debts. For $1500 change, he is willing to kill his own biological mother. But you never get the feeling that Chris truly understands how little money he gets.
I loved the deadbeat father Ansel, whose lackadaisical attitude to the insane series of events in this film, is wonderfully portrayed by Thomas Hayden Church. There are two moments in the film that really make his character for me. Firstly, when he walks into a diner and picks up a bottle at an empty table and swigs the remaining sip of beer nonchalantly. Secondly, when he attempts to suit up for the insurance claim only to have the sleeve of his blazer fall off when he picks at the thread. He is momentarily distracted but seems barely phased by it; such is his demeanour. He is a simple man and his biggest pleasure in life seems to be watching monster truck rallies (“haha, I hope you have a spare!”)
This is a film populated by idiots, backstabbers and psychopaths. And yet the entire cast all have a sense of comfort and self assurance in who they are that you can’t help but be entertained by them and in some instances, cheer for them and their unbridled stupidity.
Killer Joe was released to an NC17 certificate in America and it certainly earns it. This is a film that introduces one character vagina-first and features a relationship between a grown man and a young girl who we suspect may be mentally disabled.
The family dinner scene in the final act, in which the piece of fried chicken from the poster is used in a memorably twisted scene, rivals the freak show dinner from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s when we’ve reached a point in the film where the Smith family and Joe are hopelessly round the bend and in too deep.
Killer Joe is an entertaining exploitation film and it is made with some flair by director William Friedkin who most famously brought us The Exorcist. Although there are definitely some over the top scenes with uncomfortable sexual content, there are also moments that are shot with a measure of finesse, such as the interogation scene with Joe where he gradually questions and turns up the heat on a person he suspects is betraying the family.
Killer Joe is a film with interesting gender politics. There are two key women in this film – the sexually permissive Sharla and the naive simpleton Dottie. Sharla is comfortable using her sexuality to control Ansel (and likely other men) whilst Dottie is bartered back and forth between Joe and the Smith family like she is an object and appears to have little agency. And yet by the end of the film, it is Sharla who comes undone with her double dealing and suddenly Dottie who holds the power over the men. Well, maybe not all the men. The final seconds in the final scene leaves that interpretation up to the viewer.