Death in the Family
By Leah Churner
Dir. William Friedkin, U.S., LD Entertainment
Even more than the NC-17 rating that has dimmed its theatrical prospects, William Friedkin’s Killer Joe is a victim of its own marketing campaign. Perhaps you’ve seen the poster. Blazing up top is the tagline “a totally twisted deep-fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story,” redundantly illustrated below with a Texas-shaped hunk of fried chicken splattered with blood. This imagery has wormed its way into the reviews; nearly all contain some variation of the phrase “deep-fried,” “Southern-fried,” or “Texas-fried.” Dismissing the characters as crazy rednecks, most critics have skipped the work of character analysis that should be part of any review, especially of a film that originated as a stage play. And they’ve offered only the most superficial treatment to Killer Joe’s use of sexual taboos; it seems everybody got so revved in anticipation for that bucket of KFC, they missed the movie. Too bad, because there’s much more to Killer Joe than its climactic Buñuelian drumstick gambit, but I guess there will always be those who reduce The Exorcist to a bloody crucifix and Un Chien Andalou to a sliced-up eyeball.
Deep in the industrial armpit of south Dallas, small-time dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) finds himself in debt to gangsters after his mom sells his coke stash for car repairs. So Chris hires Joe (McConaughey), a police detective who moonlights as a contract killer, to murder his mom and collect on her life insurance. The beneficiary is his younger sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), who’s not right in the head. Chris enlists the help of his worthless lug dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), who insists on cutting in his strumpet wife Sharla (Gina Gershon). They all agree to split the $50,000 claim with Dottie. Initially, Joe insists on advance payment—no stranger to double-indemnity cases—but he agrees to accept the virgin Dottie as a “retainer” until the money comes through.
So what is Killer Joe about, if not the dining habits of Southern crackers? Writer Tracy Letts and director William Friedkin provided some much-needed insight during the Q&A at the film’s screening last week at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Teaming up a second time after 2006’s Bug, Friedkin and Letts are an odd couple. The former, whose voice and comic delivery are identical to Fred Willard’s, sauntered around the stage of the Walter Reade while the latter sat behind him in a chair, adding little, looking like he wanted to be swallowed up by the floor. The Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright was conspicuously uncomfortable, almost as if he were a defendant standing trial and Friedkin were his lawyer. I’ve rarely heard of a director attributing full credit for a film’s virtues to a screenwriter, but that’s what Friedkin was doing. The audience clearly loved the film, so what was the reason for this posture of preemptive attack? Friedkin was going way off message from the marketing materials, diminishing Killer Joe’s grotesque regionalism and arguing instead for its universality: “The people in this story are victims of their own dreams. This script is a modern Cinderella story. At some point, every little girl wants to escape and find Prince Charming. And every boy wants to be Prince Charming. Prince Charming turns out to be a lunatic, but the myth persists.”
Some critics have picked up on the fairy-tale elements, comparing it to The Night of the Hunter. Joe is a sinister father figure who infiltrates a family by playing both sides of the law. Robert Mitchum’s Preacher Powell bends the Ten Commandments; Joe, the Texas criminal justice code. Notably, both characters provide their own musical leitmotifs: Powell announces himself by singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” Joe by rhythmically flicking his Zippo. Like Hunter’s false preacher, Joe’s personality contains two menacing identities. He is laconic and no-nonsense as a hit man, baroquely cruel as an interrogator.
In the presence of Dottie, however, we meet a third Joe, the lover. Here, Joe’s similarities with Powell end. The preacher is celibate, just plain greedy. Joe’s motivations are harder to pin down. Though he earns his living as a killer, his aspirations are bourgeois. He is a stickler for rules, manners, and personal accountability. He never looks happier than when peeling back the tinfoil on Dottie’s tuna casserole. The identification character in Charles Laughton’s film is young John, but in Friedkin’s it’s clearly Joe. Like Tony Soprano, he is a sensitive, upwardly mobile monster. Sure, he’s a cold-blooded killer, but does that really make him such a bad guy?
It is precisely Joe’s sexual vulnerability that propels the story—and the tyranny of the meek. In this sense, it is closer to Don Siegel’s The Beguiled. Like Siegel, Friedkin takes an atypical approach to the gaze, objectifying McConaughey (who is, like Eastwood was in 1971, in his early forties, undergoing a career reboot). The heroes of both The Beguiled and Killer Joe are macho mercenaries who walk into Venus Flytraps.
Friedkin frames our first glimpse of Dottie the same way Elia Kazan introduces the title character in Baby Doll: alone in her bed, a slow pan across her body starting at her feet. In spite of her heart-shaped face and round teeth, Dottie’s no angel. She’s smart enough to act dumber than she is, unlike her brethren. She speaks in non sequiturs most of the time, so whenever a logical statement comes out of her mouth, the family fears she’s being clairvoyant. And in contrast to the ineffectual Smith men who range out all over town—crouching in the titty bar, the OTB, the abandoned pool hall, throwing billiard balls—Dottie rests in wait like a spider. Her dominion over the Smith family trailer is the status quo; hence the film begins and ends with a male character pleading for her mercy.
Everybody but Joe underestimates Dottie. He is drawn to her self-sufficiency. In their first encounter, Joe takes an interest in her kung-fu practice. She gets right down to the business of why she wants her mother wiped from the planet, and it is a testament to McConaughey’s acting that we can see in his eyes the precise instant Joe falls in love with her.
In their second scene together, Joe comes to the trailer bearing a bouquet of flowers to claim Dottie’s virginity. She’s cognizant of her family’s scheme to pimp her out, but we don’t get the sense that she is being raped or bought; she gives consent in her own time. Friedkin takes a significant risk in staging this, and I daresay this sex scene is where Killer Joe surpasses the otherwise brilliant direction of Bug. The “tasteful” copulation sequence in the earlier film is soap-opera cheesy, a familiar montage of his-and-hers hair follicles gleaming with sweat beads in extreme close-up. There’s none of that fancy editing in here—Joe and Dottie do it with clothes on—but the suspense is palpable. It is dangerous, tawdry, and (most important) intensely affectionate.
All would be well and good forever after, but Joe has serious boundary issues. Letts tips us off by giving Joe a monologue about growing up on the Red River, where a border dispute has raged as long as Texas and Oklahoma have been states. Joe’s moral code is rigid in the moment but arbitrary over time, and if he admires Dottie’s determination to see her mother killed, he feels differently about “evil stepmother” Sharla’s stake in the same murder. Joe’s big scene with Sharla is indeed excruciating, but it’s pivotal, because up to this point the cartoonish Smiths are a foil for Joe. Here, Joe becomes the foil, and Sharla and Ansel become human in their reaction to his insanity. The prognosis for Sharla and Ansel’s marriage is not good, but they seem to move closer together in the wake of the traumatic assault.
Killer Joe is like a fairy tale scribbled in the margins of a dirty joke book. Letts is a romantic of the Tennessee Williams school—it can’t be love if it doesn’t have claws. Joe himself explains it best with a blue joke that could be translated into a thousand languages. Asked about the craziest thing he’s ever seen on the force, Joe tells of the cuckold gone berserk: “His girlfriend was having an affair. In order to teach her a lesson he doused his genitals with lighter fluid and set them on fire. I guess he showed her.”