Saturday Night at the Movies

Deep in the black heart of Texas

By Dennis Hartley

True west: Hirsch and Temple in Killer Joe.

There’s a hardboiled American crime film subgenre one might dub “Texas Noir”, with its roots in the 1958 Orson Welles classic, Touch Of Evil . Other notable examples are Sam Peckinpah’s original 1972 version of The Getaway, Bonnie and Clyde, The Sugarland Express, Wild at Heart , Lone Star, Blood Simple , The Hot Spot, No Country For Old Men, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The Killer Inside Me . It resides at the crossroads of sun-bleached adobe and permanent midnight; where a wellspring of deceit and malice burbles and roils just beneath the cowboy charm and a laid-back drawl.

The latest genre entry to hit the multiplex is a blackly funny and deliriously nasty piece of work called Killer Joe, from veteran director William Friedkin. Jim Thompson meets Sam Shepherd (with a whiff of Tennessee Williams) in this dysfunctional trailer trash-strewn tale of avarice, perversion and murder-for-hire, adapted for the screen by Tracy Letts from his own play. This is the second collaboration between director and writer, who teamed up in 2006 for the psychological horror film, Bug (which I have never seen).

Emile Hirsch is Chris, a low-level drug dealer who lives with his abusive alcoholic mother. As if his life wasn’t hellish enough, he’s up to his eyes in debt to a local hood, who is threatening to take it out of his hide. This leaves Chris facing serious deadline pressure with a short list of options for securing beaucoup bucks. Not being overly fond of his loutish momma, he decides to kill two birds with one stone by (figuratively) throwing her from the train and cashing in on her $50,000 life insurance policy. While he may not be the brightest charcoal in the BBQ pit, he is savvy enough to realize that this will take a little collusion. Enter the family: his mouth-breathing auto mechanic daddy (Thomas Haden Church), slatternly stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) and his Lolita-ish nymphet sister Dottie (Juno Temple), who all live together in a cozy trailer home. They tentatively approve of Chris’ plan to hire a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a hit man (Matthew McConaughey) to do the deed, with the assumption that the insurance will be paid out to Dottie. “Killer” Joe (as our bad, bad cop is known) isn’t happy to learn that Chris doesn’t have the cash retainer. Joe is on the verge of cancelling when the virginal Dottie catches his eye. Perhaps we can work this out (I told you it was perverse).

While the noir tropes in the narrative may hold few surprises (expect the usual red herrings and triple-crosses), the squeamish are forewarned that the 76 year-old Friedkin still has a formidable ability to startle unsuspecting viewers; proving you’re never too old to earn an NC-17 rating (I would expect no less from the man who directed The Exorcist, which remains one of the most visceral and unsettling films of all time). That being said, those who appreciate the mordantly comic sensibilities of David Lynch, John Waters or the Coen brothers will find themselves giggling more often than gasping. The real litmus test occurs during the film’s climactic scene, which is so Grand Guignol that (depending on your sense of humor) you’ll either cringe and cover your eyes…or laugh yourself sick.

The biggest surprise is McConaughey’s nuanced work as the creepy, quietly menacing Killer Joe. Frankly, I had written him off as an actor who had been steadily obfuscating fine early-career work in films like Dazed and Confused , A Time to Kill and Lone Star by accepting relatively unchallenging roles in an increasingly forgettable string of boilerplate rom-coms (you won’t soon forget this film). Gershon camps it up with a cartoonish rendering of a trailer park cougar, but that’s what makes her character so entertaining. Newcomer Temple (daughter of British director Julien), is a revelation. She and McConaughey plunge fearlessly into a seduction scene that recalls controversial moments from Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear (involving Robert De Niro and Julliette Lewis) and Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (Eli Wallach and Carroll Baker’s infamous “porch swing” exchange, which earned the 1956 film a “condemned” rating from the Catholic church’s Legion of Decency). Judging by the umbrage taken by disgruntled audience members at the screening I attended, Friedkin’s enigmatic fadeout may leave some viewers feeling “cheated”, but those “old enough to remember” will get a chuckle out of the director’s obvious in-jokey homage to his vintage classic, The French Connection (well, that’s my theory). Granted, Killer Joe may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you’re seeking uncompromising, non-formulaic, adult fare…have a sip.

Previous posts with related themes:

The Killer Inside Me

No Country for Old Men

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Top 10 Sweatiest Noirs

Saturday Night at the Movies review archive