Down in deep, dark Texas, amid a gang of characters who are all irredeemably despicable, Killer Joe, despite its name and title character, is all about Dottie (Juno Temple). Dottie the virgin. Dottie the innocent. Dottie who supposedly sleepwalks and sleeptalks, but always speaks the truth, even if none of the men in her family care to listen or take her seriously. Dottie—the beneficiary of a $50,000 life insurance policy if her estranged mother Adele should die—and Dottie who is immediately on board with the murder-for-hire plot hatched by her drug dealer brother Chris (Emile Hirsch) and layabout doofus father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church, adding to a canon of all-timer Dumb Guy performances). These two standup guys weren’t even going to mention the plan to Dottie, even as they divvying up her financial windfall amongst themselves in advance, but she overheard them talking “about killing Momma” and signed herself right up. The proposed hitman, Detective “Killer” Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), is not on board with this plan. He operates on a fee-for-service basis (swagger is no charge), and has no interest in contingencies from a life insurance policy may not pay for months if ever. Joe declines without reservation until he glances outside at Dottie, twirling around like a child, and sees the chance to use her as a human retainer. Joe’s lust and predation is lowkey. He hasn’t remained a cop and hitman by revealing his darkest desires in a manner that might ever be read aloud in court. Without saying exactly what he means by “retainer,” Joe tells the men he’s bartering with to “call me if she’s interested”—a meager nod to Dottie’s agency, if an unserious one. There will not be many more of these. Such an arrangement “might do her some good,” concedes her father Ansel. “Give him Dottie!” Chris practically shouts.
And why shouldn’t they? This is a Southern Gothic plot as old as civilization itself, treating a daughter as sexual currency to compel and direct violence in your name. Each of them feigns justification for it. According to ex-husband Ansel, Adele herself—whose living face we never see onscreen—”isn’t doing anyone any good.” Both Ansel and Chris casually acknowledge that they’ve been physically abusive to her, Chris having thrown her up against the fridge in response to an unlikely slight: that Adele (who doesn’t use drugs) stole and sold his stash of cocaine to fix up her Cadillac. He now owes a debt to some nasty bikers led by a delightfully polite villain with Big Car Dealership energy named Digger Soames (Marc Macaulay), who laments Chris’ absence from his recent birthday party before cheerfully explaining that he’s going to have the boys here kick the shit out of him as a down payment on dropping him in a ten-foot hole if he doesn’t pay up. Just like Dottie, Adele’s fate is decided externally on the basis of what value her body and life can provide for others. So it proceeds for stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon), but more on her later.
Dottie, the most passive participant in the plot, offers the most persuasive and visceral justification for her desire (or acquiescence) for the plot to kill her mother: Adele tried to smother her with a pillow as a baby. In her first meeting with Killer Joe, during which they remain mercifully clothed, Dottie tells the tale. “And she was happy, because she thought she’d done it. And then I couldn’t grow into something better than she’d been… She was sad that I was and I will always be.” Joe, incredulous and mystified, asks how she knows that happened. Dottie says she remembers it. Joe has already marked this girl as a prize, and even he can’t quite comprehend her. A few days on from rewatching the film, Dottie still feels more concept than character to me; the script seems undecided as to her level of innocence or malice. She is a ticking time bomb whose countdown is readily apparent, even if no one in the vicinity cares to count its digits. But she is also conveniently stowed in the next room whenever the men need to bargain (or beat the tar out of her stepmother), emerging only when it’s time to show some feeling and kickstart the plot again. She is a ball of neglected chaos whose disillusionment with her family would be readily apparent to anyone who cared to listen, but will be readily apparent by the end. In short, she is whatever the script needs her to be from moment to moment. Entertaining, yes. But never entirely a real thing.
That said, Temple deserves every ounce of praise she has gotten for this performance. Wringing coherence out of a character like this is a tall order. At one point she complains when her brother switches off a Wile E. Coyote cartoon (or the closest thing these filmmakers could license) because she “wanted to see how it turns out”—a line I had to rewind and watch again just to confirm I’d heard it correctly. When Chris (whom Hirsch plays as every bit the incorrigible fuckup that he is) delivers an antiheroic tryhard speech about how he would’ve done things differently if he’d known how it would turn out, Temple busts out a bemused,”No!”—not like “No, I forgive you, don’t feel bad,” but “No, I don’t believe you, and also who cares?” At times, Temple’s performance calls to mind Margot Robbie‘s Harley Quinn. You just can’t feel too bad about someone too innocent to ever see themselves as a villain. But despite being the most deserving of this self-image among this gallery of rogues, she’s hardly alone in her exculpation. Every actor in the film seems keenly aware of what a piece of shit they’ve been written to be, and watching them play out each of these lurid beats is immensely entertaining. Killer Joe himself, who suffers in recent memory as I compare him to Better Call Saul‘s Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton), really doesn’t need to be plausible or likable. He just needs to be cool. And McConaughey can certainly pull that off, as we know by now. This McConaughey was coming off a string of lackluster rom-coms (I still have a nostalgic soft spot for The Wedding Planner), but Killer Joe was an early mark of what would become known as the McConaissance, a string of impressive performances including Mud, Bernie, The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike, True Detective and—yes, definitely this film.
What kept this review in my drafts for several days is the persistent question of what to say about the meaning of this ugly spectacle. I made a passing reference to stepmother Sharla—secretly more involved with the plot than initially revealed—having the tar beaten out of her in one scene. But that is the least disturbing thing that happens to her in the deservedly notorious chicken leg scene—a whole new definition of product placement for the ol’ K-Fry-C. Only Tracy Letts, who wrote this when he was 26 and won a Pulitzer many years later (or perhaps Friedkin, who is much older and has swam in these waters before), knows for sure what satirical note he might’ve been trying to hit here (Letts’ hilarious role in Deep Water makes a nice pairing with that question). But after a few days of pondering the question, in the end I dismissed the importance of Letts’ intentions and simultaneously concluded he was writing like a machine-learning algorithm trying to maximize trailer trash depravity. Which is fine, I suppose, as long as you don’t dwell on it for too long. That maximal moment is about Sharla, whom we know almost nothing about except that she has a side-piece (which of course Dottie knows about and doesn’t care). Gershon—that excellent and fearless Showgirls and Bound alum—was predictably matter-of-fact about the scene, which she declined to do onstage in 1998 solely because doing it eight shows a week felt like a bit much. But what does the clucksucking actually mean? Nothing at all, I’d say. Joe is as much a sexual predator and sadist as he is a cool-blooded killer, but we kinda knew that already. Dottie, as ever, was a few steps ahead of the rest of her family on realizing that, despite being stashed safely in the next room of a trailer with very thin walls as the whole fowl spectacle played out. Dottie was one of the only people we see have a pleasant interaction with Sharla in the film, but she also doesn’t seem to care all that specifically what has happened to her stepmother. She recognizes that the rot in her life is everpresent, encompassing every member of her family, and now lives inside herself as well. And all that’s left is to slip a finger inside the trigger guard and expiate it.
FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10
— Glenn Bristol