“The important thing is not ‘Does it go too far?’ but ‘Is it effective?’”, William Friedkin said in a 2012 interview discussing Killer Joe, to this day his most recent narrative feature film. In a way, though, that mantra would apply to the entire filmography of a man who terrified the church with The Exorcist, incited protests and eventual reappraisals with Cruising, enshrined David Caruso into Hollywood legend with Jade, and more.
Friedkin first teamed up with playwright Tracy Letts to adapt the writer’s Bug from the stage into the 2006 film starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon. Taking place entirely in one motel room where an Oklahoma waitress and a former soldier succumb to violent paranoia manifested as hallucinatory (or are they?) bug infestations, it’s a startling experience led by two quaking performances that fully ensnare you in a headspace you’ll never want to be in again—one that will stick with you for days after viewing. The duo would reunite five years later for Killer Joe, an adaptation of Letts’ first play, which he began writing in 1990, and the spirit of Bug lives on through it.
In a special feature on Killer Joe’s Blu-ray, Friedkin gets visibly excited: “I hope to surprise you. That’s my goal. If I haven’t, I’ve failed. It’s that simple. [The film] may anger you, you might even hate this film. But it’s gonna be in your face. And hopefully it’ll surprise you, and not simply ‘interest’ you. If it just ‘interests’ you, I’ve failed totally.”
If that’s the mark, one imagines Killer Joe was a resounding success, as audiences couldn’t possibly be prepared for what was to come. Certainly the MPAA ratings board at the time wasn’t, as the film ignited controversy when they flagged it with an NC-17 rating, which Friedkin refused to have cut down for an R, stating that cutting it would be akin to the United States’ misguided intervention in Vietnam.
On its face, Killer Joe is a relatively simple story, one which Letts—inspired by a true crime story he read of a murderous Florida family—likened to classic pulp fiction centered around characters who need some money and decide to do some really bad things to get it. His tale takes place in Dallas, where 22-year-old drug dealer and all-around fuck-up Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), deep in the hole to his supplier, comes up with a plan to off his mother Adele in order to land her $50,000 life insurance payoff. The money, he’s heard, would go to his sister Dottie (Juno Temple), and surely Dottie would be happy to split it with him and their father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church). Ansel demands that his new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) gets a cut, and with the cash distribution set in place, Chris and Ansel set about hiring “Killer Joe” Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an all-the-way crooked detective who moonlights as a hitman.
Things go sour right away, as if this hairbrained scheme had a pot to piss in to begin with. Joe arrives at the Smiths’ trailer for the meet, but Dottie is the only one there. After clearly developing a bit of a shine to her, while Dottie tells Joe all about how Adele tried to kill her once when she was an infant, Joe heads to a dingy old abandoned pool hall to make arrangements with Chris and Ansel. The trouble is, Chris’ big plan was to pay Joe with a cut of the insurance money after the hit was completed, a proposal that Joe—professional that he is—would obviously never agree to. However, there’s something else that interests Joe quite a bit, maybe even more than the money: Dottie. He offers up a solution: Dottie becomes a retainer, essentially his property until the money comes through. Chris, naturally, has no problem selling his sister to this sadistic cop in order to get himself some green bills and get out of his debt. Thus, the arrangement is made.
If this all sounds a bit absurd, Letts and Friedkin are right there with you. From an opening shot of Gershon’s merkin front and center of the frame as Hirsch, playing her step-son, pleads for her to put some pants on (“I didn’t know it was you,” she says, as if it wouldn’t be an issue if it were a total stranger at her door instead), Killer Joe is pitched squarely as a rotted black comedy of errors, a cavalcade of one disaster after another from a bunch of fools tripping over themselves in the pursuit of the one thing that drives America: Greed. In many ways, one could liken the arc of the film to a Coen brothers’ comedy, just one whose heart is laced in arsenic and beaten to a bloody pulp.
When Friedkin expressed a desire to turn the play into a film, Letts was surprised, thinking that it wouldn’t translate particularly well to cinema. Friedkin, however, keyed into it immediately, seeing it as an appropriate fit alongside the rest of his filmography, and how his work thrives on claustrophobia and paranoia, something anyone familiar with the man behind The French Connection, Sorcerer and To Live and Die in L.A. could attest to. The tension starts high and only ratchets up further and further as we quickly understand that there will be no easy way out for this assortment of sickos, and that their fate only looks bleaker as things continue.
Killer Joe’s stage roots also place it properly in Friedkin’s unique working style, which encourages spontaneity and discovery. The director tends to avoid rehearsals, and insists on as few takes as possible—often giving his actors just one to get it right, maybe two if he’s being generous. His aim is to cut the artificiality out of film, to give the audience that sensation of seeing what’s unfurling in front of them as it actually happens. We feel it in the entirely unpredictable Killer Joe, as if the actors are routinely surprised at not only their co-stars’ line deliveries and attitudes, but sometimes even their own. There’s a nervy energy laced throughout the entire picture, particularly in the case of Chris, Ansel and Sharla, who constantly feel like they’re hanging on by a thread.
Joe is the antithesis of the Smith family. Calm, cool and collected, the character has been played on stage by actors as young as their 20s and as old as Scott Glenn in his 60s, while Friedkin first considered Kurt Russell and Billy Bob Thornton for the film adaptation. McConaughey may not have been his initial choice, but it’s tough to imagine anyone else in the role upon seeing his interpretation. The steely eyes and razor-sharp bone structure give us a man who can cut like a knife, but keeps his emotions constantly in check. Friedkin wanted us to have an actor they innately trusted, someone they had come to love over his decades in romantic comedies and playing heroic figures, using that safety to his advantage as he has Joe twist the dagger into what we believe when we see McConaughey. Coming at the turn of the full-blown McConassaince, Killer Joe stands firmly as one of the finest displays of McConaughey’s long-untapped potential.
While Killer Joe’s chaotic descent into hell swirls around the majority of its running time, fueled by the fumbling misdeeds of Chris, Ansel and Sharla, Joe is its icy center, keeping it cool until he can’t contain it anymore. In the film’s blistering climax, where all the twists and betrayals are laid out flat and Joe realizes he’s not going to get his money, nor is anyone going to get their happy ending, that façade is shed like he’s Jack Torrance or Patrick Bateman and he unleashes fire and brimstone upon the entire trailer in one of the most deeply disturbing—and frighteningly hysterical—sequences imaginable.
While the finale presents a dramatic shift in Joe himself, it’s Dottie who’s the core of this tale. Friedkin described the film as a twisted Cinderella story, with Dottie as the princess trapped in her trailer of a castle, finding Joe as the handsome prince who can give her an escape. With this interpretation in mind, it’s easy to see the pieces being laid all over. Everyone uses Dottie as though she has no agency of her own; they push and pull her into the boxes they see fit, thinking her naivete means she doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. Sharper than she appears, she knows exactly what the score is from the early days, and even as all hell is breaking loose, she sees her way out of the misery she’s been born into.
At one point a role set up for Jennifer Lawrence, Friedkin remarks on the film’s Blu-ray that he has no idea how Temple ever even got the script (he amusingly seems confused to this day). Get it she did, though, and had her 10-year-old brother read the lines of the other characters for her audition tape she sent in that helped land her the role. It’s clear that Temple understood exactly what Dottie represented in the story, stating that she was influenced by Sissy Spacek’s performance in Badlands, another warped fairy tale of a young girl being put under the thrall of a charismatic older man and seeing it as her escape from the world she was trapped in.
Dottie’s fairy tale is the audience’s repugnant nightmare, yet through it all Friedkin retains Letts’ sharp and depraved sense of humor with a cast who totally understands the material. When the nuclear fallout has happened, beatings lashed out, adulterous betrayals revealed, vomit spewed and more, Joe sits down next to a cuckolded Ansel and raises the point, “All she did was suck his cock and try and steal your money. It could have been worse.”
Ansel asks, “How?”
Joe, putting on his best face of optimism, can’t find a quick enough answer: “Well… no, I suppose that’s about as bad as it gets.” Thomas Haden Church’s defeated Eeyore expression is all you need to bust a gut laughing, somehow another absurd bit of comedy wrought from the utter chaos enacted on screen.
It’s just one of the many moments throughout Killer Joe where you’re unsure if you should laugh, wince, throw up or scream, a fascinating concoction of responses that Friedkin and Letts mastered in both of their collaborations. As Friedkin said, the film may anger you, you might even hate it, but it will surprise you. Whether you love it or not, that’s beside the point. In a world where so many films come out each week that are exactly what they say on the tin, that are exactly what you expect them to be from the moment you read the synopsis or see the trailer, Killer Joe is a true gem of shock and awe. Love it or hate it, you’re certainly going to have a reaction—and you damn sure will never forget it.
Currently based in Newark, Delaware, Mitchell Beaupre is the Senior Editor at Letterboxd, and a freelance film journalist for sites including The Film Stage, Paste Magazine, and Little White Lies. With every new movie they watch, they’re adding five more to their never-ending Letterboxd watchlist. You can find them on Twitter at @itismitchell.