Sometimes a horror movie doesn’t look like a horror movie at all. Every once in awhile a movie seems like something else entirely, invoking none of the accepted horror elements or tropes the audience has become accustomed to. These films only really reveal themselves as horror once the end credits roll, when the viewer realized they have just witnessed some of the most horrific elements of humanity. Killer Joe, the latest by director William Friedkin, is one of those movies.
Killer Joe is the product of director, William Friedkin and Tracy Letts, author of the screenplay and the play it is based on, who last collaborated on the 2006 film “Bug”. And like “Bug”, Killer Joe is about dysfunctional people looking to be a protagonist but just can’t help but slip into being their own antagonist. The basic premise is that through a series of unfortunate economic decisions, Chris(Emile Hirsch) turns to his family with a murder plot, executed by professional assassin, Killer Joe(Matthew McConaughey) that would result in a life insurance payout that would solve said financial problems. As you would imagine, things don’t quite work out as smoothly as planned. This premise, though, is just a small portion of what Killer Joe is.
Probably the most interesting and entertaining portion of Killer Joe is the character work. From the phenomenal writing to the exceptional acting of Killer Joe, the audience is treated to some of the most complicated, entertaining, and generally despicable human beings to be portrayed on film this year. This ensemble is even more interesting when it is considered that the film never really develops a well defined protagonist or antagonist. In truth, every character fills each of these roles from scene to scene. If too much sympathy is being developed, Friedkin makes sure it is undermined by a despicable act or two. This results in an unsettling dynamic that never lets the viewer really establish solid footing with the characters involved. It is never clear what each character’s true motives are or where there allegiance might lie. Once any of that appears to be clear, they shift into a double, sometimes triple, cross. That character portrayal leads to a real tension and discomfort that is never diffused until the final sequence of the film.
One of the elements of that final sequence, and Killer Joe in general, is a seemingly misogynistic view of every woman within the film. They are leered at, abused, and objectified throughout the film. Even what usually plays as strict titillation is darkened by Friedkin’s lens. Whenever a woman is nude, which is quite a bit, a bruise or two is always visible. In the world of Friedkin’s Killer Joe even sexuality has become sinister and dark. A woman, the mother of Chris, is the Macguffin of the film and the rest are treated with equal coldness and disdain. This world is cruel and unfair, especially for the women. This is especially on display in the final sequence of Killer Joe. Two women are involved. One is brutalized and the other treated as a commodity.
This is also the sequence in which Killer Joe really reveals itself as a kind of horror film. Friedkin, who also directed The Exorcist, obviously knows how to film the unbelievably horrific and pulls no punches in the final moments of Killer Joe. Each character reaches their despicable crescendo and those actions in concert results in a horrific scene like none other. It is very rare for a film to truly leave its audience speechless, but that final instance of horrible human depravity does exactly that. It is hard to know how to respond to the final images Friedkin shows us, especially since some of them elicit dark laughter.
Killer Joe may not technically be a horror film, but the characters, the motives, and the final sequence of events within it are so darkly shocking, and somehow humorous, it inarguably feels horrific. And I loved every minute of it.