by James Hansen
...the primary task of Killer Joe appears as a negotiation between ideal and actuality. Playing off various sets of contractions, often within individual characters – save Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) the self-consciously clueless father – Friedkin and Letts thumb at the scales of a balancing act – between innocence and violence, sincerity and theatricality, comedy and horror – which percolates throughout the film, slowly building toward and finally culminating in the spectacularly absurd (yet undeniably vicious) already notorious finale.
From its opening moments, William Friedkin's film of Tracy Letts's Killer Joe lays out its fantastical artifice and places it in immediate opposition to its supposed southern authenticity. The upbeat soundtrack creates a mismatch with the dark setting and violently barking dog. For an instant, the scene is completely quiet and dry before an enormous downpour begins. Then, as Chris (Emile Hirsch) beats on a door constantly spouting what becomes his entrance refrain (“Shut up, T-Bone!”) while screaming for Dottie (Juno Temple), the camera slowly tracks up the body of the young girl grasping a snow globe as she sleeps. Chris is not met with Dottie’s angelic presence, but instead the exposed genitals of his evil stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon).
For the rest of the film, the primary task of Killer Joe appears as a negotiation between ideal and actuality. Playing off various sets of contractions, often within individual characters – save Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) the self-consciously clueless father – Friedkin and Letts thumb at the scales of a balancing act – between innocence and violence, sincerity and theatricality, comedy and horror – which percolates throughout the film, slowly building toward and finally culminating in the spectacularly absurd (yet undeniably vicious) already notorious finale.
Most crucial to all of this is the relationship between Joe (Matthew McConaughey) and Dottie. Both McConaughey and Temple are terrific, giving inspired performances with no reservations. Their opening scene, so crucial to the tone of their relationship, transfers a slightly nervous energy between them into the as-of-yet unrealized potentialities – both high and low – of their characters actions. The scene carefully moves from Joe’s intrusive entrance, met with Dottie’s kung fu, into a calming and spectacularly bizarre conversation regarding Joe’s past, the craziest thing he has seen, and Dottie’s own infantile memory of surviving attempted murder. While the rest of the characters underestimate her, Joe’s fascination with Dottie becomes our own. (Of course, this doesn’t happen without the incredibly tight, brilliant screenplay by Letts, who has already proven himself as one of our most important playwrights.)
This leads to one of the film’s two great scenes – Joe’s “courtship” of Dottie after being given her by Chris and Ansel as a retainer for his killing service. The scene carefully moves through Joe’s charm and into his commanding, more dangerous role. Dottie transforms from an unaware childlikeness to a knowing and willing participant. All the while, both characters retain some kind of vulnerability and tenderness, perhaps locating it in the foil of the other.
As the film progresses and the relationship becomes threatened, the carefully composed tone swings a bit more wildly, following the motivations and (ir)rationality of the psychopathic killer and his princess. If Killer Joe gives us something like an unresolved ending – you can almost feel a blackout light cue hit as if on a stage – it is because the film breaks exactly where its task hits its highest point and explodes. Joe’s real, violent self breaks Dottie’s view of his idealized rescue, taking her away from the misery of the South and its misdirected family values. (Letts seems nearly obsessed with breaking down families at the place where they most often meet – the dinner table.) Similarly, the film’s artificiality breaks down amidst the extreme violence, which is certainly meant to provoke a level of disgust even as the stakes become more cartoonish. (A short scene of Dottie’s fascination with a cartoon in a diner hints toward this direction.) Like Dottie and Joe, pushed to their limits, the stable, opposing categories that Killer Joe plays itself off of collide and fall apart into each other. After that, the only thing left is hysteria.