“You hit her didn’t you?”
I’ve been meaning to check out William Friedkin‘s Bug for a while now. Despite my enjoyment for The Exorcist and The French Connection, it’s not necessarily because of the director. I just don’t know enough of his filmography to faithfully keep tabs with high interest. No, the reason I’m fascinated by it besides the involvement of actor Michael Shannon is the dark aesthetic its imagery instills. I bring this up now because it seems that tonal quality may in fact be a product of screenwriter and playwright Tracy Letts. A 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner for August: Osage County—currently in cinematic post-production from John Wells—Letts appears to have a big fan in Friedkin as he returns five years after Bug with an adaptation of the playwright’s first work, Killer Joe.
I heard the buzz about how messed up the film is—an NC-17 rating was denied leniency and DVDs have been released unrated—and yet I don’t think I was ready for where it eventually went. For the first half I actually wondered if the talk was hyperbolic as the white trash sensibility created an unseemly feel but never crossed a line I haven’t seen ignored many times before. The Smith family greedily hires a crooked Texas cop moonlighting as a hitman to take out their estranged matriarch and reap the rewards of her insurance policy. It’s pretty much by the books as far as these contract murder tales go, the only real hiccup being Detective Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) taking the Smith’s youngest member Dottie’s (Juno Temple) virginity as collateral until paid.
There is a grimy look throughout from the darkened trailer park under monsoon-like rains at the start to authentic poverty-level details such as wardrobe, run-down haunts, a well-attended strip club, and the joy of some “K Fry C” for dinner like it’s a sirloin steak. Killer Joe is a Southern American Gothic tale wherein the life of someone who should be loved ends up an expendable afterthought worth nothing more than the monetary value they possess. The Smiths are a sinful group getting in way over their heads once they discover how morally repugnant Joe Cooper truly is. Thoughts of outsmarting anyone should be eradicated as soon as they pop into these people’s minds and yet some false sense of confidence and hubris has them believing crime is all about the silver lining.
It begins with a late night proposition courtesy of Chris (Emile Hirsch). In big to local gangster Digger Soames (Marc Macaulay), the word of his mother’s boyfriend plants a seed of homicide. According to Rex, the former Mrs. Smith holds a fifty thousand dollar policy ripe for the taking. Half can go to Joe for doing the deed and the other half can be separated four ways to Chris, Dottie, their father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), and his new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon). It’s a foolproof way out of debt for all, the inability to advance Joe his fee the only issue before being rectified by turning the simpleminded Dottie into his retainer. So if the aesthetic itself wasn’t enough to turn your stomach, the whoring of an innocent may do the job.
The sad tragedy of it all of course comes from the victimized Dottie believing her situation is steeped in love. Joe stays over and she willingly gives herself to him for the trouble, acknowledging he’s there to be her mother’s killer yet not understanding her place in the scheme. Ansel and Sharla could care less about her well being, both trailer trash coveting the potential windfall as infinitely more important. Only Chris—the one who needs the cash to save his life against the hardcore thugs on his tail—has the capacity to clearly look at the situation and comprehend the horrible thing he has done to the one person he loves. Unfortunately for him, however, the wheel turns quicker than his guilt and the real devastation comes in its aftermath.
Letts puts some fascinating detail into the plot that may at first seem superfluous but ultimately proves integral to manufacturing the pitch-black atmosphere he builds. I love how Digger knows Chris, invites him to his birthday bashes, and gives extra time for payment without canceling the beat down necessary to show his severity. Gershon’s Sharla is a treat opening her door to strangers with nothing but a short tee, ordering fake pizzas to disguise her personal calls at work, and giving Dottie three dollars to hit the thrift store for a new dress. And Church is all lower class from his facial hair, subservience to more powerful men, and constant excuses for a woman walking all over him. You’d be hard-pressed not to leave the film feeling dirty even without the climactic carnage.
That said, boy what an ending. Sympathies aren’t easy to hold onto after the plot progresses to paint all involved in a tainted hue and yet I couldn’t help futilely pulling for Hirsch and Temple. Not quite innocents or heinous people, they don’t do themselves any favors by actively seeking out their inevitable demise. I also strangely began aligning myself towards McConaughey’s vile, malicious Joe. Here’s a guy caught inside a cataclysmic storm of deceit simply attempting to get what’s owed. But when his breaking point is met and his calm, collected demeanor makes way towards a quietly extreme violence, I began to understand there was no redemption for anyone. An animalistic intensity takes control until its abrupt end leaves intense questions unanswered, the contextually misplaced grin on McConaughey’s face haunting you after.
 Matthew McConaughey stars as Killer Joe Cooper in LD Entertainment’s Killer Joe (2012)
 Emile Hirsch stars as Chris Smith and Matthew McConaughey stars as Killer Joe Cooper in LD Entertainment’s Killer Joe (2012)
 Emile Hirsch stars as Chris Smith and Juno Temple stars as Dottie Smith in LD Entertainment’s Killer Joe (2012)