There are certain things every Film Noir should have in its arsenal. A femme fatale. An anti-hero. A larger-than-life villain. A big twist. An innocent dame. A large sum of money.
William Friedkin’s Killer Joe is about as textbook as a Noir can get. All of the elements are in place. Emile Hirsch plays Chris, a narcissistic, stupid Texan twenty-something in need of some fast cash. He’s our anti-hero. Juno Temple plays Chris’s sister, Dottie, the innocent, youthful temptress whose entire persona centers around how objectified she can possibly become. She spends more screen time naked than clothed, and at no point is she allowed to make any of her own decisions. She is a classic dame, the kind that isn’t allowed in movies anymore. Don’t worry, Friedkin and Tracy Letts (the screenwriter, who adapted the film from his own play) know this. That’s kind of the point.
Gina Gershon plays Charlotte, Chris’s evil stepmother. From the very first time you see her, there is no question that she’s the femme fatale. She’s mean, independent, smart, and very protective of her secrets. She’s the opposite of Dottie by design.
And then there’s Killer Joe, played by an excellent Matthew McConaughey (who is having a career renaissance more people should be noticing). He’s dangerous, scary, and very good at his job.
All of these players are brought together because of a large sum of money–fifty thousand dollars, to be exact. The money comes from an insurance policy on Chris and Dottie’s mother. Maybe you can piece together the plot from there.
Killer Joe is a self-consciously disgusting movie, but it’s also an elegantly designed one. At first glance, it’s nothing more than a trivial thriller about white trash, but when you take a closer look, you find an expertly structured, brilliantly acted piece of genre cinema produced by one of the legendary masters of cinema.
Let’s start with the story, which I’ve just described. In one hand, it’s a seedy, nihilistic tale trying too hard to illicit shock. In the other hand, it’s a carbon copy of any other Noir from the 1950s that happened to be produced in a time where nothing is shocking anymore.
In the heyday of Noir (about 1947), nobody knew what a Noir was. That’s because the genre wasn’t properly given a name until long after critics saw the similarities. In retrospect, it’s amazing that nobody noticed the tropes. One of the main similarities between all Film Noir stories is that they’re always about dark and seedy people doing dark and seedy things. In the 1940s, when the majority of these movies were made, the studios had to follow pretty rigid rules about what they could show on screen. The dark and seedy people were often vaguely evil. They wore dark suits and often wore thin mustaches. They drank dark liquor and had foreign accents.
[pullquote align=”right”]The performances are so good, so funny, that you often find yourself laughing at the worst possible time. [/pullquote]
Now, seventy years later, there are no restrictions for what can be put in a movie. So a Noir made now can actually show us what the movies wanted to show us decades ago–that is, people with no moral compass operating in their own universe. And as we should all know by now, low-class criminals don’t really hang out in swanky bars in New York City, smoking expensive cigarettes and drinking expensive liquor. No.
They live in trailers, terrible apartments, and motel rooms. The kind of person who would kill for a small amount of money doesn’t live like a king. He lives like a slave.
This is Tracy Letts’s answer to the Noir of the past. It’s an honest answer. What would a real-life Noir really be like? Winter’s Bone got it right by sticking its plot into the middle of meth-dealing family in the Ozarks. Blood Simple got it right when the Coen Brothers stuck a classic caper story in the middle of a lazy Southern town.
Killer Joe is about under-educated, totally impoverished people doing the best they can to do as little work as possible. And in doing so, everything falls apart.
Letts and Friedkin collaborated once before on a movie called BUG, another film about lower-class people attempting to behave larger than themselves and failing.
Their collaboration is a great fit. Letts understands the drama of poverty. He understands the desperation of fear. Friedkin knows how to make a movie about wholly unlikable people let loose in a sandbox (The French Connection) and he knows how to make a gritty, realistic movie based in a heightened reality (The Exorcist).
Killer Joe may not be as cerebral and necessary to the artform as BUG, but it takes Film Noir in a direction I’ve always wanted it to go–South. McConaughey plays it broad, and rightly so. Thomas Haden Church plays the idiot sidekick like he was born in those shoes. The performances are so good, so funny, that you often find yourself laughing at the worst possible time.
Make no mistake, Killer Joe is a dark comedy. It has the beats of a comedy, the performances of a comedy, but none of the players know they’re being funny. Quite the contrary, it’s life or death for them. But the desperation is so silly and severe that you can’t help but laugh. These people are too stupid for their own good, and the only person who is able to rise above sea level is Killer Joe himself, who is too blinded by Dottie’s innocent beauty to do so.
It’s a fascinating movie. One that warrants multiple viewings and multiple subtextual readings. It’s William Friedkin working at the top of his game.
If only the film had been as respected as Friedkin’s earlier efforts. If only sexuality wasn’t as demonized as it is in the United States. If only the MPAA knew how harmful it is in its indirect applause of violence and abhorrence to sex, this movie could have been a major hit. Instead, it’ll be your favorite five-dollar-bin recommendation. And that’s a shame, because Killer Joe is one of the best movies of the year.