Movies We Like
It's an unfortunate fact that the vast majority of actors who, in their prime, filled roles that were at once progressive and invigorating, turned to ones that were lackluster, if not depressing, once they reached their peak of marketability within a genre. Usually this career transition leans towards comedy--and while viewers strain to recognize adept versatility on the screen, they often find themselves quite underwhelmed. Some notable examples of such actors are Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman. That being stated, in Killer Joe one can find a rare opposite in transitions. Here we find the harmless and perhaps awkward Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer, Into the Wild) and the go-to charmer of chick-flicks, Mathew McConaughey, playing two morally reprehensible characters that are not only believable but unnerving.
The plot more or less surrounds the woes of Chris (Emile Hirsch), a somewhat desperate young man of poor character who owes a Texan drug lord 6K for “misplaced dope.” To blame for the drugs going missing is Chris’s mother Adele, a woman whom he, and the rest of the family, hate. He goes to his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) for help. Ansel lives in a trailer park with his new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) and his daughter Dottie (Juno Temple) from the previous marriage. When it becomes clear that Ansel doesn’t have the money to lend him Chris tells him of a half-brained scheme involving Joe Cooper, a detective who is self-employed as a hitman. The obvious target is Adele, who has a $50,000 life insurance policy. The money could not only pay off Chris’s debts and the $25,000 fee for Joe’s services, but the remainder could send Dottie, the sole beneficiary, to college.
Chris goes to Cooper hoping to have him do the job on spec and await payment until the policy is honored. Unfortunately for him, Joe only negotiates with those who are able to pay for his services in advance. However, in Chris’s case, he is willing to make an exception in the form of a “retainer” until he gets paid; Dottie. It doesn’t take long for everyone to offer up the mentally handicapped girl to Joe. And as tensions rise when Chris’s morals come into focus and the drug lord closes in, he finds that bringing “Killer Joe” into the lives of everyone he loves will cost him much more than $25,000.
Going into the film, I was prepared to find a story so predictable that I could finish the lines of all the characters. To my delightful surprise this was untrue. The character development was so masterfully constructed and executed that the plot (which is based on a play) came across as something that supported the cast more than the cast supported it.
For starters, you cannot sympathize with any of them simply because they are all involved in the plan and execution of a murder from which they hope to profit. It is precisely this anti-hero element that perhaps desensitizes you to the violence which, had you any sympathy, could be very hard to sit through. Hirsch is able to turn Chris into a character that is seemingly harmless (as he does in his other roles) but it is his success in portraying a man limited to a foul mouth and dangerous desperation that allows you to see through the baby face.
McConaughey, as one might expect after hearing of his performance in Magic Mike, takes the cake in this film. I have never felt so uncomfortable and disgusted during scenes involving sex or ultra violence as in this film--and I have McConaughey to thank. To see an actor that you associate as being the gentle, charming, and level-headed person in movies keep those qualities and add ruthless, sociopathic and slimy was something to behold. And although you wouldn’t think it, it was this level-headed approach to a psychotic character that added a lot of dark comic relief--similar to Javier Bardem’s role in No Country for Old Men.
This review wouldn’t be complete without commenting on the elusive Gina Gershon (Showgirls) who’s been missing on the big screen for many years. Not only was she completely fearless in the film--doing things that even A-list actors couldn’t pull off if they tried--but she was also able to pull off a character that is alluring, ruthless, and helpless all at once. There were moments where I sincerely wanted to go into the screen and shake her hand.
Juno Temple’s portrayal of Dottie drew a reaction from me that was similar to the one created by the character of Killer Joe. Temple was able to pull off an age-less and quite child-like character to the point where the relationship with Killer Joe was perhaps the most uncomfortable thing about the movie because of its inappropriateness. And yet, underneath the blank expression of the nymphish character was a needed reaction to the madness that Temple gave to perfection.
In all honesty, director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) and the cast presented a most-welcome, and unexpected gem with Killer Joe. I highly recommend the film to anyone who likes desperate characters, untapped potential in actors, and endings that keep you glued to your seat long after the film has reached its end.