A trailer park wasteland of porch light confessionals and broken home catastrophes play out in smoldering tableau; dead-end streets are born of desolate dive bars framed by endless night skies, shattered complexions frozen by lightning and thunderous awakenings catch up in razor wire ruins mortally wounding all who enter curmudgeon craftsman William Friedkin‘s 2011 socio-pathetic amorality tale Killer Joe. It is unyielding and beguiling, awash in mixed atrocity and unflinching disregard for the viewer. Reviews are equally misfit, the lovers and haters mixed on the comic measure, the horror glamour. Some suggest the violence is safety distanced as if satire an excuse for excess instead of barometer for restraint. This film goes beyond mere staged reactions to unspeakable actions blurring the line between entertainment and spectacle. The collateral damage does not end right away but lingers like nuclear fallout to poison all those who come after. It is Friedkin’s mannered pursuit of the macabre that elicits gut wrenching contractions, disarming the viewer to uneasy laughter that feels wrong for all the wrong reasons. The most interesting is the most underhanded, how well it is done and how dangerous. The powerful the performances draw you in, convincing you to stay because of familiar faces that leave you unprepared for the wreckage that follows. Killer Joe is not wickedly good fun or hilarious as in some of the reviews I’ve read. It is a morose and unsavory outland of trash strewn gutters and shattered chain link fences torn open, jagged skeletal remains revealing junk heaps and dead cars on busted black radials with bulging, toothless grins choking on dirt. It is untouchable and incomplete, unsteady ground waiting to catch you up, draw you below – if only there were a ‘Keep Out!’ sign big enough to save you from the point of no return.
Once inside, once willing to embrace the sinking ship, it takes you down deep in dark waters without the air to return to the surface again. It is a slow and painful unraveling, richly nuanced and articulate in the way the star cast inhabit the characters fully and shockingly unexpected. I have not been so repulsed since The Stoning of Soraya M., so conflicted as to the endless spectacle of bloody mayhem driving Mel Gibson’s Passion Of The Christ. But unlike those films, so rooted in believable and charismatic characters with a purpose and foresight that all films arrive and depart, take us and return us to the safety of our ordinary world, Killer Joe makes a point to wound and leave us for dead. Friedkin’s willingness to take the viewer so far into the broken lives of lost souls and leave us there with no way out, no air or means of escape, is unconscionable. It is reprehensible for the artist/filmmaker to take advantage of his audience, to dupe them as such and that he does it with such glee, in his interviews on the subject, is deplorable (Schadenfreude in German) if not borderline sadistic. Unlike those films, shocking and troubling as they are, the filmmaker’s are conscious of their audiences, prepared for a reasonable and respectable denouement from which to usher the viewer out of the darkness, however fleeting. Killer Joe goes where few other films dare to tread and leaves the viewer broken-spirited, burdened with emotions that are impossible to shake off like the black tar oil spills of indifferent corporations washed up over fledgling sea life, destined for a slow, painful end, desperate for help that never comes.
“It is not enough to succeed; others must fail” (Gore Vidal)
I wish I had another recommendation option. I’m always conflicted when it comes to films that are extremely well made in parts but suffer from outlandish choices, mistakes of the heart and soul that otherwise ruin such accomplishment and merit. I can only say to you the lucky viewer who has not seen this film that most should avoid it. There is hardly a saving grace for its blatant disregard of the everyday moviegoer; films like the aforementioned are not for the weak of heart or easily wounded, for the empath or emotionally insecure. For that reason alone I must say miss this film. It will not appeal to most, even the ardent horror porn aficionado will find it outlasting its welcome, nor the fan of Tarantino’s latest romp into blood lust and carnal atrociousness will go without some semblance of harm, some residual of disrespect. What differentiates Friedkin‘s handling of terror and brutality is a safe distance with which to observe, to discredit the violence and shocking suffering from the immediacy of our personal lives, a sort of safety glass alarm with which sheer absurdity and impossibility gives one a way out of it through laughter and frivolity. How does one laugh at this film, even if at times it does portend stupid is as stupid does – to quote an iconic character. Behavior of such blatant ignorance is room for laughs but such levity is far and few between or otherwise consumed by carnage. I suppose that is the rub, that Friedkin has done such an incredible job of working with the screenplay and his actors, that he has culled such performances of their careers and in so doing has made his characters not only believable in their troubled demise but liken to any number of headlines in our modern times.
Killer Joe excels at depravity for the sake of sick humor, blanketing terror in makeshift excuses that, because the real is strained through an excess of absurdity, bad judgment and dumb decisions are rendered palatable, even socially accessible when they are anything but. I think this is dangerously close to reckless and opportunistic, an aging filmmaker of considerable merit grasping at sensationalism, preying on our willingness to laugh at personal ruin against our better judgment. Just because you can should you? At what point does this film become tediously simple-minded, one-track abominable behavior without a shred of purpose, devoid of any meaningful entertainment value. Perhaps that is it after all, the pointlessness of it all, theater for the emotionally exhausted and morally bankrupt. If there is grace to be mined from the depths, some salvation in the darkest hour of another 103 minute movie snapshot of your life, it is being reminded that troubled souls beget troubled endings that should frighten us because they are among us. If Killer Joe succeeds it is not as an excursion from our everyday but rather a hunting party to which we are complicit in the pursuit of horrors, made to watch and to join in for every dastardly act that should affect us and trouble us all.
The viewer that is not repulsed by this film is the viewer with the most questions to ask themselves about amorality and selfish disregard for the sanctity of decency. I make no judgments but warnings, pay heed all ye who enter here, you will be changed, you will be affected, you will have a hard time forgetting the darkness in this film and not for the better of lasting memories. If that makes you want to see the film, so be it. Perhaps I have lived too close to such flames and the wounds remain as if recently inflicted, the troubles too great to return to as entertainment or mere spectacle for the sake of cheap laughs that invariably find us in haunting memories.
- Friedkin’s Madness (binarybonsai.com)
- Matthew McConaughey Gives Viewers a Strong Jolt of Reckoning in ‘Killer Joe’ (Review) (popmatters.com)
- Get Insight Into Killer Joe with Red Band Trailer Featuring Commentary by Gina Gershon (shockya.com)
- Esquire:Sundance Q&A: Juno Temple Is Blowing Up (esquire.com)
- Film: Crosstalk: Can an exploitation movie be a great movie? (avclub.com)