It isn’t immediately apparent, but William Friedken‘s Killer Joe is the year’s most effective horror movie, a dirty, sexual, gore-spattered test of nerves, a psychological grindhouse film that introduces us to some deeply unlikable people who only grow more unlikable—and more disturbing—with each decision they make. The reason this isn’t obvious from the start is because Killer Joe is also, at times, one of the year’s funniest movies. Its characters and set-pieces are so dumb they defy the theory of evolution. Surely, God shaped the Smith family of mud and forgot to breathe life into them. Save one, they’re a pack of witless bumblers. It’s funny watching them get what’s coming their way, at least to a point, at which you feel disgusting for having enjoyed anything that came before.
Working from Bug-collaborator Tracey Lett’s adaptation of his own play, Friedken and his cast inhabit a dusty Texas town and its sloven trailer park, a place where pit bulls are always barking, monster trucks are always on TV, and where “K Fried C” isn’t just for dinner, but is a delicacy. The movie begins when Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) pulls up to his dad Ansel’s (Thomas Hayden Church) trailer. He bangs on the door. The pit bull next door barks. He tells it to shut up. He bangs on the door again. The pit bull continues to bark. Finally, his step-mother (Gina Gershon) answers the door. She’s not wearing pants. Or underwear. The Smiths are exactly those people. Chris is in deep with the mob over drug money, and neither he nor anybody he knows has enough cash to save his life. It’s a rough business, dealing drugs (though you certainly wouldn’t know it, later on, looking at the man Chris owes money to and his gentleman thugs), but Chris wants to keep selling. Moreover, he wants to keep living. So he hatches a plan, and he wants Ansel in on it.
There’s a detective in Dallas by the name of Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) whose real stock in trade isn’t solving murders, but committing them for desperate people, provided they pay him a hefty sum of money. Chris doesn’t know anybody with that kind of money, not anybody Killer Joe’d kill, anyway, but he’s just learned that his mother has a big life insurance policy, big enough to pay off Chris’ debt and cover Killer Joe’s fee, with some left over for Ansel, for being part of the plot. The only snag in the plan is that it isn’t Chris or Ansel in the will as the sole benefactor, but Chris’ sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). Initially, they’re concerned that the plan will go awry if Dottie finds out, but when they get back to the trailer they find she’s been listening the whole time. “She wasn’t doing nobody any good,” Dottie says, agreeing that hiring Killer Joe is a good plan.
That’s the big joke in Killer Joe, that a cadre of nitwits this dumb could look at someone else and determine that they’re doing someone a kindness being dead, rather than alive. It’s hardly a surprise that, when Killer Joe meets these people, he considers them ants. The first family member he meets is Dottie, who is in the living room practicing kung-fu when Killer Joe pays the Smith trailer a visit. If anybody in this movie is “innocent,” it’s her, and its pretty clear that this appeals to the contract killer, who doesn’t assume, as her family does, that she’s mentally incompetent. Watching the film, it’s pretty clear that Dottie’s the only member of the family with any brains, but when you’re raised by a group like the one she’s got, what hope do you have? Joe’s initially turned off by the prospect of doing a job for these people, especially since they don’t have his money in advance, but agrees to see the thing through if they give him Dottie as a kind of retainer. Chris and Ansel both know that doing so would be wrong, they both know what Killer Joe intends to do with her, but these are desperate, stupid men, so they desperately, stupidly agree.
Though it concerns a family willing to kill another member of the family for money, this is where Killer Joe takes a decided turn for the dark and uncomfortable. Killer Joe is a character fully grounded in the more sinister aspects of Matthew McConaughey’s charm, something ugly, reptilian, and aggressive. In two other roles this year—as a detective in Bernie and as lead stripper in Magic Mike—McConaughey’s snake-like charm is shown to cast a spell on whatever audience he’s in front of, a yokel jury or a room of drunk women, but as Killer Joe Cooper he’s a man ruthless in his quest to have sex with an underage girl. In most horror movies, sex is something that exists not in the realm of flesh or physicality, but fantasy. The teenagers of a Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street movie drink and dance and think it’d be swell to make it with their sweetheart, but are often hacked to pieces before that can happen. (Admittedly, this has changed since mainstream horror movies have pushed further and further out in an attempt to shock an audience they’ve long since numbed. Jason, Freddie, et. al. are just as likely to kill a soon-to-be-dead teenager mid-act as not.) Dottie, who knows why her father wants her to put on a dress for the dinner she’ll be having with Killer Joe, talks to the killer about the concept of “pure love.” Joe, for his part, twists that concept and makes it his own so he can get what he wants. Nobody dies in this sequence. Nobody is shot, stabbed, or wounded. There are no loud music ques. Nobody screams. It’s still one of the most squirm-inducing scenes in recent memory.
Killer Joe Cooper is a perfect monster, and Killer Joe is quite methodical in showing him go about his work. While its easy to assume that a detective who kills people for money on the side is a little less than mentally sound, there’s a slow, excruciating burn leading to the moment where the Smiths realize they’ve messed with forces they should have left alone. Killer Joe works so effectively because of the chemestry between Friedken and Letts, and because the entire cast turns in career-best work, but this is clearly McConaughey’s film, his coldly intense performance a kind of penance for the years he spent shirtless in rom-com purgatory. His performance here recalls Robert Mitchum’s in Night of the Hunter, though its a sign of the times when it’s not enough to destroy a family in pursuit of money. Killer Joe wants something more from his prey. What’s most chilling is the way he presents himself to Dottie not as a punishment for the mistakes her family has made, but as a choice only she’s capable of making.
Killer Joe. Directed by William Friedken. With Matthew McConaughey (Killer Joe Cooper), Emile Hirsch (Chris Smith), Juno Temple (Dottie Smith), Thomas Hayden Church (Ansel Smith), and Gina Gershon (Sharla Smith). Released July 27, 2012, by LD Entertainment.