When settling down for an evening of trash, theater audiences have a comfortable distance from the content. This decidedly highbrow group – does anyone in the US, save the “most cultured,” support the dying art of drama anymore? – may delight in the bizarre, while they’d flip right past such on a cable television channel. In the case of Killer Joe, Traci Letts’ 1993 seamy delight, the theater attendees take a conscious trip to the trailer-park underbelly of Dallas, knowing its beneath them but happy to look down upon it. Meanwhile, Letts offers a near overdose of violence over the (required) social commentary, which develops into shock theater. (But weren’t Shakespeare’s bloody melodramas much the same?)
In taking the project to film, William Friedkin (who filmed Letts’ follow-up play, Bug, in 2006) kills the audience-contract with the shift of medium, even if the project is pitched to the similar, art house crowd. The promo poster sells the film as a “Deep-Fried Redneck Murder Story,” with a wink from an eye more bloodshot than smirking. On screen, the menace and lust grows into violence, directly in our faces. On stage, the language of such remains dominant over the visual – in today’s age of multiple video mediums, theater is as much a literary endeavor as a dramatic one. Theater audiences certainly like the anti-capitalist commentary of Joe, while wading in the filthy divergences. Dottie (a lovely and scene-stealing Juno Temple), the obvious victim in the film version, becomes a commodity, a retainer for a deal made by members of a crumbling family. Their choice to prostitute her – a deal that may become permanent – has influence and damnation of Biblical scope.
The film contains a high-concept premise: family members aim to kill off mother for an insurance payoff. Enter Dottie as part of the deal when they can’t come up with their hired killer’s fee. The insidious premise lurks throughout, as does paranoia about surveillance in the film of Letts’ Bug. In Friedkin’s Joe, we meet Chris (Emile Hirsch) first when arriving to his father’s mobile home after getting kicked out of his mother’s. When entering, his face meets the bare crotch of Sharla (Gina Gershon), the newer wife of Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church). Hence, Friedkin lays down the cards: along with the violence will come more flesh, in which the family will soon deal. Chris is already haunted, in debt to loan sharks and in need of a quick plan. Ansel, via a not-quite-believably-dim Hayden Church, seems powerless to Sharla and everything else around him, unless he’s ripping off a customer as a mechanic.
The final piece is Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, worthy of the title role), the cool and eloquent cop/contract killer. Upfront recalling the Jekyll/Hyde center of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (filmed by Michael Winterbottom in 2010), Joe also wears black from hat to boot. In appearance he channels Jack Palance’s Wilson in George Stevens’ Shane, the sure-shot (and coffee-drinking, like Killer Joe) dark spirit called forth to take on the new, eponymous threat. (While Joe Starrett in that film is the [holy] father proper, we’ll soon see how the “Killer” owns that first name.) Shane descends from the heavens and returns there after saving the community. Thus, Joe Cooper comes as a dark threat to the family proper, who will need their own man-of-action to save them. At moments, the film suggests it to be Chris (a decoy of biblical symbolism in this name), though his later battering by goons will make it a long-shot. And yet Joe, as the title character (like Alan Ladd in Stevens’ film), becomes a threat-turn-redeemer, the only hope for Dottie’s salvation. To the family, Joe is a bizarre father figure, who arrives to save only the worthy. In line with Freud’s The Uncanny, he is the repressed returning to a family whose value structure is chaotic. Though Joe enters the family for his own means, as he eventually breaks down Chris, the hero-decoy, to nothing, and claims his “retainer.”
Joe’s power goes only so far, as the commodity, Dottie, eventually takes control to “regulate” her new family. Along with the hyperreal Joe, Dottie plays as a ghost already removed from her trashy family. A sleepwalker, she was almost killed by her mother when young – a memory she eerily makes clear to Joe. At 20, she’s somehow still a virgin, in a family totally compromised sexually, morally, and in violence. Her memory of a boyfriend could be wish fulfillment shielding the kind of home-borne abuse she likely received, or that may have killed this revision of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
When Joe gets his date with Dottie (creepily set up by her deal-making family) he orders their sexual union, by staging the act, step by step. In doing so, he shows he has baggage a la Blue Velvet‘s Frank Booth in his need for making sex into performance. He’ll order more of the same near the end, in Lett’s and Friedkin’s deep-fried payoff promised in the poster. Joe proves his dominance elsewhere, through sexual power in which an over-done commodity (fast food) proves flavorless, and near deadly. Joe stages (and climaxes!) just before learning of his promise of a new life. But coming from Dottie’s surprising reveal, we see it as a deal between two apparitions drawn not for our sympathy, but as masques born to condemn the folk around them.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J. His book, The New American Crime Film is forthcoming with McFarland.