William Friedkin’s latest film Killer Joe is a hardboiled taut Texas noir that eviscerates Southern American Values while providing a potent dose of satire, brutality and reality. This little movie delivers a giant sized bucket of entertainment that paints a painfully funny glimpse of what’s happening in Christian trailer trash Texas. The film is named after the character Killer Joe (played to the hilt by Matthew McConaughey), a dirty cop who’s hired by a Texas trailer trash family – the Smiths – to kill off the mom for her life insurance policy. Taut, tight, hilarious and brutal, the movie includes everything from a dirty cop to a dirty family, adultery, drugs, murder, fried chicken blow jobs, betrayal, treachery, incest and Jesus. It’s a love story, a slice of American realism, a thriller, and a satirical comedy, all wrapped in one. In other words, Killer Joe delivers the Super Value Meal where you get everything on the menu, and you get it hard, fast and furious. Underneath all the fried chicken, the murder scams, and the corruption is a pretty hilarious commentary on sexual repression, greed, violence, and the Christian family.
The Smith family, for the record, includes the Dumb-As-Shit Ansel who is the ex-husband of Mama (a.k.a. Adele), the woman who everyone wants dead. According to their offspring – Dottie and Chris – Mama is a doped-up coke fiend with a bad boyfriend and a lot of dirty laundry. Young Dottie floats around in her Neverneverland of perpetual childhood, sleeping and stumbling through the film in a snow globe fantasy of innocence and sexless sex. Her brother Chris has been out screwing over drug dealers and needs to pay them back before they pay him back with a gun to his head. The solution: Chris convinces his father Ansel to hire Killer Joe to kill off mama and get her life insurance policy, so the whole Smith family can have a slice of the pie. In the middle of the family is Ansel’s new wife Sharla played with ferocious perfection by Gina Gershon. At first, the whole plan to hire Killer Joe to murder Mama seems like it needs to be kept a secret, but it doesn’t take long to discover that actually everyone, including the seemingly innocent Dottie, is down with killing Mama.
Interestingly even though Mama is central to the plot of this movie and nothing in the movie would happen without her character and the planned murder of Adele (pronounced AY-dell), we never actually meet the woman. Everyone wants Mama dead, but we don’t even see her until she’s dead in her car. We get a short glimpse of her body slumped in the driver’s seat before Killer Joe sets the car on fire and Adele goes up in flames. That’s okay. We don’t really need Mama anyway because the movie is so tightly stitched together that there’s no room to squeeze her in except as a plot device and an excuse for an awesome car explosion scene.
When I say this movie is tight, I do mean that it is tight as a drum. Written by playwright Tracy Letts who also wrote Bug (a film adaptation of a Letts’ play about American paranoia), every single second of the film is loaded and counts. Every line of dialogue, frame, comic scene, and violent moment is brilliantly stitched together, and it never lets up. The violence builds and builds as does the comedy as the movie moves from scene to scene and character to character, from Jesus and guns, to matricide, beer and tuna casserole.
The film is named after Killer Joe, a gun for hire. Though in theory Joe is a “dirty cop” – a cop who will murder anyone for the right amount of cash – nothing about Joe is dirty. He enters the scene looking like a slick intruder in this tawdry trailer trash family. His entire lean, mean, clean appearance plays in direct contrast to the grungy domestic realism of the Smith family. Killer Joe is a killing machine whose veneer is as shiny and smooth as his mirrored sunglasses. Killer Joe makes the deal with the Smith family to kill Mama, but only with the condition that the family offer the daughter Dottie as his retainer.
Joe likes Dottie. She floats across his cool eyes like a little Hallmark angel, and he wants to pluck her out of her snow globe life and have her all to himself. When Joe eventually “gets” Dottie, we witness the act, but like so many other scenes that should be loaded with sex in the movie, we are actually denied any sexual act. We watch Killer Joe watch Dottie, but we never actually see them have sex. Instead we get to see another smooth side of Killer Joe – his naked bare butt. This is not the first time the movie industry has offered us a glimpse of Matthew McConaughey’s naked butt (see Magic Mike in which Matthew McConaughey’s butt plays a prominent role). What I want to mention about McConaughey’s butt is that even though it exists in this graphically violent and sexually charged film, nothing about his butt is pornographic or even sexual. His butt is presented more as a statement of fact, just another accessory to his character. His butt is as tight and smooth as his leather jacket, leather gloves, stiff Stetson, cowboy boots, gun and holster, Zippo lighter, and shiny cop badge.
Matthew McConaughey’s naked butt brings me to the film’s NC-17 rating. Needless to say, the rating alone indicates that the film is not for the faint of heart. I sat through the movie (and loved every minute of it) and assessed that it received the NC-17 rating for two reasons (neither of which were Matthew McConaughey’s butt): 1) Beaver shots; 2) the fried chicken leg blowjob scene. The interesting thing is that while the film shows full frontal female nudity (including two beavers) and an act of fellatio, none of these include actual sex. We see a simulation of a blow job; we see full frontal beaver shots, but not one single sex act is performed on screen. Because underneath the violence, the film is largely about the dysfunction of American sexual repression and the impotence it inspires.
It doesn’t take long for the first beaver shot to enter the film. We get a screen-width view of Gina Gershon’s beaver within the first ten minutes of the movie. A beat-up Chris arrives home at the Smith family trailer. He stands outside in the rain and bangs on the trailer door as the constantly barking Smith family dog pulls on his chain. The whole scene plays like a kind of desperate white trash horror film. We don’t know who or what is going to open that door? A masked mass murder? A goon with a chainsaw? We’ve seen the movies! The trailer door swings open and what we are confronted with is much more unsettling than Leather Face (see Texas Chainsaw Massacre for details). Coming straight at us from Chris’s eye view is Gina Gershon’s big, black bush. Chris is standing a couple of steps down from the trailer door, so when Sharla (Gershon) opens the door, it’s full frontal Beaver In The Face. It fills the screen. It’s big, black, hairy and bad. Sharla puts her hand on her hip and wields her bush like a dare. Chris’s face turns white in horror as he stares at the beaver. When Chris enters the trailer, the camera follows Sharla and her exposed beaver around the trailer for a few minutes. Chris eventually says something like, “Jesus Christ Sharla, put some clothes on. You think we all want to see your beaver?” It is important to note that Sharla’s beaver, like Killer Joe’s butt, is never sexual. It is also just a statement of fact and an accessory to her character.
Sexual or not, the Hollywood film rating industry is not big on beaver shots, but I have to tell you that Gina Gershon wields her beaver with ferocity and confidence. I’ve never seen such a confidently played beaver in a Hollywood movie. In fact, Gina Gershon embraces the entire character of Sharla with such ferocious intensity that we can’t help but love her even though she is a treacherous, selfish, money-grubbing, deceitful liar. She does it so well. In fact, stepping back from the film and putting on my analytical hat, I’d have to say that part of the point of Sharla’s character is that she is the Fierce Beaver – the Trailer Trash Femme Fatale with her heavy make-up, tight jeans, high-heeled boots, smoldering cigarette, deep cleavage and all that tough, hardcore, brutal femininity as represented by her unflinching and hard-as-nails bush.
On the other hand, we have Dottie who plays counterpoint to Sharla’s ferocious and deceitful treachery. The young Dottie is like some kind of visionary heroine trapped in a trailer trash fairytale gone wrong. Dottie is like Cinderella who falls in love with the Big Bad Wolf (Killer Joe). They are a fairytale romance carved out of trailer trash Texas. We first see Dottie sleeping in her bedroom in a dream-filled shot bursting with stuffed animals, snow globes and her innocent dozing body. Throughout the movie, Dottie’s fleshy body fills the screen squeezed into cut-off shorts or baby doll nightgowns. She flits through the movie like the symbol of the virgin who is also the embodiment of lust as she stands in the rain, dances in the street, or meets Joe in the trailer for dinner. She is the flipside Gina Gershon’s hard Sharla. While Sharla looks like she was carved out of cast iron and a thick coat of Maybelline, Dottie looks like she was molded from Pillsbury dough and faded denim. This does not mean that Dottie is not sexualized. In fact, one of the most tense scenes in the movie is when Dottie and Killer Joe consummate their love. We don’t actually see sex on the screen, but we do watch Dottie undress through Joe’s eyes.
When Dottie drops her panties and exposes her bush to the screen, it is quite a different perspective from seeing Sharla’s bush through Chris’s appalled eyes. In this scene, we watch Dottie through Joe’s eyes as she undresses and bares her bush for him and for the audience. We are put in the position of Joe, and it is not an entirely comfortable position to be in. Rather than being comical like the scene with Sharla, Dottie’s beaver shot is uncomfortable because we are explicitly made complicit in the act of voyeurism of this woman child’s body. Nevertheless, it should be noted that even though this is a “sex scene,” we never see sex on the screen. We never once witness Dottie and Joe perform sex. They “act out” scenes but the actual sex act never occurs. Joe channels his sexuality and gets his actual rocks off through his gun and his fists when he’s out killing people (like so many other Americans). For him, Dottie’s bush is an ideal, a fantasy, something that needs to be watched from a distance. His actual sexuality is withheld, repressed and redirected through violence. That says about all there is to say about sex and violence in American culture.
Yet, despite the fact that Dottie’s naked body is uncomfortable to the audience, the movie still toys with an underlying fairytale romance between Joe and Dottie. Somehow they are right for each other even when everything in this movie is so wrong. Dottie often appears like an apparition from another world, just as Killer Joe is a kind of alien presence in the Smith family life. The two “outsiders” – the hard Joe and the soft Dottie – offer a sweet yet demented love story. On the one hand, we cheer for their triumph when Dottie chooses Joe over her fucked-up family and when she picks up a pistol and blows them away. On the other, when we discover that Dottie is pregnant with Joe’s child, we can’t help but think, “Oh my god! Not another fucked-up Texas family in the making!”
The sex scene with Dottie and Joe may be an uncomfortable act of voyeurism, but the whole movie is an act of voyeurism as it tears the sheets off this Texas family and Southern Christian family values. Note the cross on the wall of the trailer, the ludicrous scene when the family says grace, Dottie’s fierce belief in Jesus and other traces of Southern Christianity in the middle of all this corruption, violence and weird sex. In other words, Killer Joe exposes the naked truth about trailer park Christians and the bad cops who bed with them.
I have unexpectedly spent an inordinate amount of time comparing Dottie and Sharla’s bushes, so I should take a minute to discuss the other side of the gender picture – the impotent father and son, Ansel and Chris. Thomas Haden Church’s Ansel Smith is the epitome of stupid. Pussy-whipped (and rendered impotent) by Sharla and her ferocious bush, Ansel is deluded and dumb as a stick. Never has stupid been played with such precision and finesse. On the other hand, Emile Hirsh’s Chris is rendered impotent by his unhealthy obsession (a.k.a. incestuous infatuation) with his sister Dottie. Neither of these guys can be the man that Killer Joe is. At least Joe knows how to direct his sexuality through his cold steel pistol. Joe is like a standing pillar of masculinity, encased in a sheath of leather, steel and confidence. Ansel and Chris, on the other hand, wallow around in their ineffectiveness and are chained to the women who they’ll never be able to possess. They can’t even commit murder themselves, but have to hire Joe as a proxy gun. Ansel and Chris are not unlike their dog chained to a pole outside their trailer. Ansel and Chris are dogs on chains, and they can only grovel and bark at the women (and their bushes) who hold power over them, whether it’s the power of the innocent virgin (Dottie) or the power of the lustful whore (Sharla). What a great portrait of the American Southern Christian family and sexual repression!
To ground the movie in Southern trailer trash realism, the final climax scene centers on a bucket of fried chicken and a family dinner gone terribly wrong. In this scene, everything explodes. The stupidity and delusions of the Smith family end up in a big mess on the floor as the treacherous Sharla is outed for orchestrating Adele’s matricide for her own profits. Killer Joe makes Sharla pay the price for her deceits by forcing her to perform an act that is far more gruesome than the beaver shots we formerly witnessed.
In an extended scene that pushes violence and sexploitation to the absolute limit, Joe beats Sharla’s face with a can of pumpkin and then forces her to perform fellatio on a fried chicken drumstick. If you think you were uncomfortable watching Dottie strip naked, this scene makes Dottie’s beaver shot look like a scene from Disney’s Cinderella. Yet, when I watched the climactic scene unfold in all its disgusting violence, blood and sexploitation, I couldn’t help laughing as did the rest of the audience. Not one single person walked out of the theater even though this scene pushes the audience to the absolute limits of what they can accept on the screen.
I had to ask myself, “Why is it that we are able to laugh as Sharla gets her face beat in and is forced to give a chicken leg a blowjob?” The answer is because the acts are grounded in homegrown wholesome symbols of American values – pumpkin pie and fried chicken. If Joe beat Sharla with his fists or forced her to literally give him a blowjob, that would be something entirely different. The can of pumpkin and the fried chicken leg make the scene acceptable, funny, and monstrously satirical. Also, once again, the actual sex act is displaced by being performed on a chicken leg rather than on Killer Joe’s actual penis. He can’t even take his pants off. He can only hold out a fried drumstick like a prosthetic penis to perform sex.
Don’t get me wrong. Just because the film features a fried chicken leg blowjob and a number of beaver shots, that doesn’t mean it’s not brilliant and also oddly beautiful. The cinematography is stunning. The lighting is gorgeous with its saturated blues and oranges playing against the harsh daylight of outdoors. The interior shots glow with the fantasy of the American dream while the harsh daylight lighting expose the bitter family squabbles on sidewalk and the tawdry reality of this dream gone bad. One particularly beautiful scene takes place in an abandoned pool hall where Chris and Ansel negotiate with Joe. Light seeps in from windows, and the pool hall with its dead pinball machine and empty pool table glows with the fantasy of the American gamble in which no one is going to win.
The industrial background of the oil state grounds the movie in the land of oil and ignorance, yet it also provides stunning images of the American industrial landscape. The nighttime rain shots are so beautiful that we feel torn between the beauty of the images on screen and the monstrously parodic scenes playing before our eyes. The fire and heat of this explosive family are shown everywhere, whether in Adele’s exploding car or the fire that is always burning in an oil drum outside the Smith family trailer. Because the cinematography is so stunning, the movie manages to be beautiful while also being horrific, funny, terrible and riotously entertaining.
Killer Joe will definitely be one of my favorite movies of the year. It’s a clean, rapid fire, hilarious and brutal evisceration of American greed, Christian values, and repressed sexuality. Of course if you’re looking for middle brow bourgeois cinema that doesn’t make you squirm while watching it, this is not the movie for you. If you are uncomfortable having your cinematic buttons pushed and if beaver shots and fried chicken leg blowjobs freak you out, you’re going to want to stay away from this movie. But if you want a full throttle piece of entertainment that is also a scathing critique of American southern Christian trailer trash culture, then I suggest you find a theater that’s playing Killer Joe, and go there right now.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.