Thursday, August 30, 2012

Killer Joe Comes to the Valley of Hell

by Pa Rock
Citizen Film Critic

Last night I drove across Phoenix to the high-rent area of the Valley of Hell, more commonly known as Scottsdale.  The purpose of that thirty-five mile sojourn was to watch the film version of Tracy Letts' riveting play, Killer Joe.  I had seen a staged version of Killer Joe a couple of years ago at Phoenix's Nearly Naked Theatre, and was pleased to discover that the film version by director William Friedkin  did not take many liberties with Lett's powerful script.

The plot is simple, bloody simple.  Young Chris (Emile Hirsch), a not too bright small town dope dealer, has his stash stolen by his mother.  Unfortunately, Chris still owes a local gangster for the drugs, and if he can't come up with the cash quickly, he has been assured that he will suffer a very real and painful death.

But it's hard to be too critical of Chris because he and his virginal younger sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), are from a broken home.  Dottie, in fact, lives with her dad, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and his girlfriend, Sharla (Gina Gershon), in their rundown trailer.

Chris decides that the best way to recoup his money and save his worthless hide is to have his mother killed for her life insurance - which reportedly has Dottie as the beneficiary.  He has heard about a lawman who moonlights as a hit man, and determines to hire him to take out mom.  The other members of this highly dysfunctional Texas family are very quickly up to their red necks in the murder conspiracy.

Nobody, it seems, has much love for the dope-stealing mother.

The plan that Chris hatches is to pay the hit man, Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), from the proceeds of mom's life insurance.  Unfortunately, the plan is nearly derailed when Killer Joe demands his cash up front.  But then Joe meets Dottie and decides that she would be an acceptable "retainer" to insure that he gets his money - and, of course, he gets Dottie in the meantime.

And then it starts to get complicated.

Killer Joe is bloody and brutal with a dark undercurrent of macabre humor.  McConaughey took the title role in an effort to increase his acting credibility, and he was remarkably successful in that endeavor.  His Killer Joe is far more intense than any other character that he has ever played, and is, indeed, one of the more sociopathic characters of recent movie memory.  McConaughey's Joe Cooper is cold, impersonal, violent, and very deadly.  The only person with whom he displays any humanity is the simple and voluptuous Dottie.    The  movie is McConaughety's, from his arrival at the Smith family trailer to the blood-soaked finale.

Aside from learning a unique use for chicken drumsticks, there is little or nothing of educational value in Killer Joe.  But that doesn't mean it's not a good movie, because it is.  The movie takes us to the human zoo, late on a dark night, just as the animals are beginning to feed on each other.  It is disturbing, even repulsive, but it gives us one more insight into the complexities of life.  The Smiths aren't us, but they aren't total strangers either.

Killer Joe is rated NC-17 - for good reason.  Leave the kids at home.

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