Where can one find concentrated folly in cinema? Horror movies are a good starting point. You know, the ones where the busty co-ed forgets her cellphone in a dark abandoned house, and then the masked slayer slices her up like sharp cheddar. In “Killer Joe,” our villain kills actual morons, not just people who make shitty decisions. It paints the picture of a dog-eat-dog world, where family means nil and self-interest is the sole motive. It’s mania and psychosis and sadism fused together in a bloodthirsty thriller whose only flaw is not being crazier than it is.
At The State
Admittedly, the stage was set for a solid film. Accomplished director William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”) willingly shows his admiration for legend Orson Welles via his handheld lensing, creating a raw, unfeeling atmosphere. He likes to tell unconventional stories, and this NC-17-rated film is in no way an exception. Friedkin’s intrepid approach force-feeds what everyone — maybe only when stoned — mentally stumbles upon: fucked-up images. People’s natural inhibitions cloud this area of thought. Friedkin, however, stomps on the gas pedal.
Chris Smith (played with brilliant idiocy by Emile Hirsch, “Into the Wild”) is a trailer-trash drug pusher deep in the heart of Texas. He got kicked out of his divorced mother’s place and is in debt to some ruthless bad boys. His equally trailer-trash father is equally penniless. The proposed solution: hire half-cop, half-moonlight hit-man Killer Joe (played breathtakingly by Matthew McConaughey, “The Lincoln Lawyer”) to kill his mother to redeem her $50 thousand life insurance policy. The contract seems no-frills until Joe becomes infatuated with Chris’s impaired teenage sister Dottie (played by spellbound Juno Temple, “Atonement”). Naturally, his intentions are far from benign.
Visually, “Joe” triumphs. From the initial frames, one notices a quasi-HD grainy texture to the picture, as if a 2012 film vacationed in ’80s sunlight for a week. It reinforces the grisly thematic elements that ooze at an increasing rate throughout. The camerawork, too, seems to reside in mainly handheld form, lending an attractive unpredictability to the storyline. The tracking close-ups of each character allow viewers to hop inside the heads of their onscreen favorites or villains.
It’d be injustice not to flesh out the titular man of the hour. Though the supporting cast delivers wholesomely foolish and impressively taut performances, McConaughey is the true treasure. A reflection of sadistic greats like Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” and Jack Torrance in “The Shining,” Joe tempers his violent mania with his calm, pithy words. He masterfully tells Dottie a cop story about a fat man who “lit his genitals on fire” to teach his cheating girlfriend a lesson. By the end, we have a Joe whose command is almost monolithic: a consummate professional in being demented. Stunning.
The tantalizing web on which this twisted tale rests is the notion that no one character can be trusted. Everyone is a good guy, and everyone is a bad guy. Everyone’s flaws are tacitly explained while some intentions remain innocuous. Joe serves as an unfitting, jagged piece forcing itself into an already scattered and dysfunctional family puzzle. He likes it that way, if you didn’t notice.
“Joe” is about as graphic as it gets today, featuring proudly unshaven vaginas and a twisted instance of KFC-assisted fellatio. Better yet, it peels back the layers of human brainlessness ad nauseam. It depicts what happens when a malevolent manipulator toys with pawns on a chessboard. We want to look away, but Joe’s tsunami of unflinching strength is too engrossing. If only he had unleashed fury sooner and more often.