Traditionally movies reflect the socio-political mood of the population. In this is a time proven method to induce the audience into a state of identification with the characters and circumstances depicted in the film. During periods of economic distress the movies usually show regular people trying to scrape along or devise some ingenious means to better their financial position. During the great depression comedies featured characters like Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Little Tramp’ while dramatic faire exemplified the pervasive hatred of banking institutions resulting in the extraordinary popularity of the American gangster flick. In keeping with this long standing tradition there is the movie considered here, ‘Killer Joe’, is one example of a movie addressing the recent economic downturn. The fundamental premise of this movie is a man needing to get out from under a financial crunch through extremely illegal means. The methodology employed here is literally a classic, matricide. The idea of getting mother out of the way to garner power of profit dates back to antiquity but this movie displays a modern, darker take on the subject. There are a number of classic dark comedies like ‘Let’s Throw Momma from the Train’ using humor to ameliorate the social taboos inherent in the topic. This movie takes a heavily dramatic approach liberally and expertly seasoned with black comedy and wry twists. It concentrates on the perennial favorite genre, the crime thriller. With a stellar cast and tight direction the screenplay by Tracy Letts turns his play of the same name into a completing story of family betrayal, greed and desperation. The movie is the latest opus of one on America’s greatest filmmakers, William Friedkin. In 1973 he redefined the horror movie experience with ‘The Exorcist’, hot on the heels of bringing heart pounding action into the crime dram in his ‘French Connection’. Although he made his mark in several types of film his forte has been in crime drama. Friedkin’s style transcended the traditional elements of category infusing it with a sense of mystery and intrigue not reached buy most directors tackling stories centered on those walking the wrong side of the law. Some of his movies were pivotal to my generation as we moved out of the grind house and into main stream movies. He blazed a trail then and continues to craft movies that shin brightly.
Like millions of Americans Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) has come to the realization that his current level of debt far exceeds his means to pay it down. Even though as a drug dealer his vocation might seem recession proof through bad decisions and other economically deleterious circumstances Chris is in dire need of an immediate bolus of cash. The only solution he can think of is to kill his mother. It is not like anyone in the family particularly likes the woman; some would even go so far as to state she is evil. Besides, Chris is desperate for the money. There is a sizable insurance policy but the sole beneficiary is his younger sister, Dottie, (Juno Temple). It doesn’t require a lot of convincing to get her on board with the plot. The biggest drawback is going to jail for first degree murder, not something a resident of Texas deals lightly with. What is required is an intermediary, preferably someone with the expertise to get the job done efficiently and without a trail back to them. They seem to have located the right person with ‘Killer Joe’ Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a police homicide detective who has been using his profession understanding of how murderers are apprehended to sustain a lucrative side line as a contract killer. The deal is struck; Chris and Dottie will split the money four was, after Joe’s fee, including Chris’s father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and his new wife, Shelia (Gina Gershon). There is a flaw in this fiendish plan; they discover the policy names Chris as the beneficiary. It is also uncovered that Shelia has had a covert relationship with Rex (Sean O'Hara), dear old Mom’s boy toy. Unfortunately this comes out only after Killer Joe achieves his end of the contract.
This is the kind of story that holds a lot of potential. The same foundation of plot points could have been mixed in a myriad of recipes each one resulting in a valid interpretation of the story. As a ploy the action is confined to a relatively small forcing the actors to rely on their performance to covey the emotional impact of the scheme as it unfolds. In the hands of a master craftsman like Friedkin the play comes to life on the expansive tableau of the screen but without the usual loss of the intimacy forged between the characters. This is what sets this movie considerably above the typical dark comedy approach. Although he is not known for this form of humor he pulls it off with exceptional élan. The major difference he brings to his use of the darkly comical aspects is not relying on it as the dominant thread in the piece. It is an accent blended in to what amounts to a tautly developed Southern gothic production. Each relationship that is depicted is there for a reason further the story by eliciting an emotional response from the audience. When Dottie is offered as collateral from the transaction experience in these types of movie would lead you to believe a romantic outcome is possible. The way that develops is just one of many thematic twists offered. Just remember nothing is as it seems and everyone is self-serving.
William Friedkin has the track record that could easily command a much larger budget but movie reported had a price tag of about $10 million, when a director with the credentials and status enjoyed by Mr. William Friedkin accepts the helm of an independent production the motivation is obviously to push him artistically. Friedkin provides the audience a film that gives a ride through some on the sinister motivations of this murderously minded cadre while injecting the black comedic outcome of the plan. As Chris soon discovers perfect murders are not quite as simple as he hoped and the irony is he could have omitted the loose ends provided by including the other family members. McConaughey has had a series of light hearted roles of late but this movie afforded him the opportunity to stretch as an actor again and delve into a more emotionally intense role. In all this film is a return of a great filmmaker who remains one of the greats.