I like vulgar movies. I’d pick a vulgar movie over something “tasteful” any day. This isn’t specifically because I like to be shocked. I just think there’s more life in so-called bad taste. William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (based on a stage play by Tracy Letts) is a good example of what I mean. Very little of what happens in this movie is pleasant. It starts with scheming, betrayal and a middle-aged woman brandishing her pubic hair, and it only gets wilder from there on out. If I didn’t like the movie, I’d say it was lurid. But I did like it, so I say it’s vulgar. I grant you, the difference between the two words is subjective, perhaps even spurious. If I had to try to define it, I guess I’d say I prefer the baroque to the grotesque.
In a sleazy part of Texas, where matricide is not unthinkable if you’re in a jam, we meet Chris, a young man who wants his mother dead. Chris owes six thousand dollars to a man named Digger, who will kill Chris if he doesn’t pay up. In order to prevent his untimely demise, Chris hires Killer Joe, a cop who moonlights as a hitman. Joe will kill Chris’s momma, and Chris will pay Joe (and Digger) with the money from his momma’s insurance policy. The only hitch in the plan is that Joe wants a retainer for his services. The retainer Joe has in mind is Chris’s sister, Dottie. Chris doesn’t like this little caveat one bit. But he’s desperate. So he gives Dottie to Joe: a man whose eyes “hurt” you when you look at him.
When Joe first meets Dottie he tells her a story about a man who “set his genitals on fire” to “teach his girlfriend a lesson” after he caught her having an affair. “Was [the man] alright?” Dottie asks. “No,” says Joe. “He wasn’t alright. He set his genitals on fire.” To which Dottie replies: “I had an aunt who set herself on fire –” Now, I don’t know about you, but I sit up straight when I hear this kind of exchange. There’s danger in the air when Joe and Dottie meet. He’s a charming psychopath and she’s hot and spooky. Or maybe there’s danger because it’s the other way around. You can’t trust Dottie not to kill anyone when she gets mad. The goddamn air in Texas seems violent. Lightening threatens havoc from the sky.
You may think you’ve seen it all, but I promise you haven’t seen what Joe does with a piece of fried chicken. Matthew McConaughey is like the big bad wolf in the title role. He’s a man out of Cormac McCarthy’s darkest imaginings. Unspeakable acts happen when he’s around. He isn’t the villain of the piece, so much as evil incarnate. “I’ll slaughter you all like pigs!” he howls, and you don’t doubt his intentions for a minute. McConaughey is like Robert De Niro in Cape Fear. His role is almost pantomime villainy. Part of the thrill of watching him is the fact that he’s bigger than life. But he’s no cartoon. Like De Niro and Juliette Lewis, the lust between McConaughey and Juno Temple is always disturbingly real.
William Friedkin isn’t averse to voyeurism, judging by the number of times Dottie/Juno takes off her clothes. The director certainly lets his camera linger on the naked girl like a dirty old man. But then again, this movie is set in a place where moral boundaries have all collapsed. And Friedkin always did enjoy screwing with his audience. You’re hardly going to find political correctness in a movie called Killer Joe anyway. We’re in James M Cain territory, a world where men and women do bad things to each other because they like breaking rules. There’s a no-holds-barred quality to human behaviour in this film. Everyone is reckless. Every intimacy is fraught. It’s a scuzzy milieu, no question. Gina Gershon appears bottomless both as a provocation and as a warning. Sex is a source of chaos in this movie. The plot is a series of wanton acts.
Personally, I don’t mind this sort of thing. I was far more appalled when I watched The Descendants, with George Clooney. In that so-called “tasteful” film, a broken family learns to love again. The acting is subtle, the direction is subdued, and it’s all so goddamn nuanced it makes you want to punch someone in the mouth. I can’t abide that sort of hushed quality in movies. Piss and vinegar is what I crave. Now, I know there are those who’ll say Killer Joegoes too far. I winced too, at the grand guignol of the finale. But in vulgar movies you have to allow for the macabre. Bad taste is unpredictable. Unpleasantness is part of the deal. Like a slap in the face, this movie will rouse you. Just don’t expect it to be polite.