Killer Joe (2011): Texas Trailer Trashy


Directed by the legend that is William Friedkin (who scared us silly with The Exorcist and thrilled us with The French Connection) and written by Tracy Letts (who also wrote the play that the film was based on) Killer Joe takes great pains to tell us that all the things we suspected about American “trailer trash” were true.

There is even an ending to the film that could have come straight off the Maury show. But  despite looking like a Jerry Springer or Steve Wilkos episode gone wrong, Killer Joe steps into the dark territory of the black comedy with overtures of depravity and being dirt poor in the southern gothic arena of Texas.

While mixing my metaphors, I do have to point out, that KJ is not politically correct nor does it try to keep from using southern stereotypes to send its message. From the incredibly rich “good ol’ boy” that Chris needs to payback to the illiterate shambling hulk that is Chris’s father, each and every character in this film are stereotypes. Even Killer Joe himself.

But perhaps none more than Dottie; Chris’s sister. Dottie’s mother tried to kill her when she was an infant by holding a pillow over her face. An act that Dottie solemnly relates to Joe as one she remembers. She also tells him that her mother thought that she had succeeded but that she, Dottie, wasn’t dead.

But I am getting ahead of myself here, so I’ll get back on track now.

The plot: 

The film follows the trails and tribulations of the Smith family in one of the poorer Dallas trailer parks. Chris owes a lot of money to the local redneck loan shark and he is desperate to pay him off. He approaches his dad, Ansel  for a thousand dollars to keep ‘Red’ from killing him.

English: Thomas Haden Church at the 2009 Tribe...
Actor Thomas Haden Church plays Ansel.

Ansel doesn’t have a thousand dollars and with a hangdog delivery states that he’s never had a thousand dollars in his entire life. Ansel’s wife Sharla hates Chris and wants him thrown out of their trailer which Chris has come to after his mother Adele has kicked him out of hers.

Adele is Ansel’s ex-wife and according to her boyfriend Rex, is worth 50 thousand dollars dead. Rex also tells Chris that the money would go to Dottie and he reveals the existence of Killer Joe, a police detective who is also a contract killer. He tells Chris how Joe operates and Chris decides that his mother Adele must go.

Since Chris and Ansel don’t have the money to pay Joe up-front, Joe decides that he will take Dottie as a ‘retainer’ until the job is finished. Unfortunately things don’t go as planned.

The Cast:

Matthew McConaughey
Emile Hirsch
Juno Temple
Thomas Haden Church
Gina Gershon
Marc Macaulay

The Characters:

While Killer Joe could be seen as an ensemble film, it really follows Dottie and Chris. Dottie, who obviously suffered brain damage from oxygen deprivation when her mother attempted to smother her, is what we would have called simple or “touched” when I was a boy. Nowadays, in this more politically aware world, we’d say mentally challenged. Chris is just trouble on two legs. He has a penchant for failure and his failings unfortunately touch a lot of people, especially his family.

Killer Joe, besides being a cop and a contract killer, is a cold and detached man who likes things spelled out and who does not, apparently, like foul language.

Chris and Killer Joe.
Chris and Killer Joe aka Emile Hirsh and Mathew McConaughey.

The other two immediate characters are Ansel and Sharla. Looking and acting like refugees from the Maury Show, these two are living proof that Texas trailer trash exist and they both possess a disturbing nature and disposition.

Adele, the object of the proposed hit and Rex her boyfriend are shadowy figures that we never really see, even though Adele is the catalyst that moves the main theme of the film along.

The Twist:

There are several twists to this film and all are done expertly. Woven into the action and coming from different directions, the best twist of all is Dottie. I can say nothing more, otherwise this will fall under “spoiler” territory.

The Verdict:

By the time this film reached its climax I sat shaking my head in wonderment. This was darkly entertaining and disturbing at the same time. I knew people like Ansel, Chris and Dottie when I was growing up. Luckily, I knew of someone like ‘Killer’ Joe Cooper, but had no direct dealings with him. The most this version of Joe was capable of was petty larceny and blackmail.

So for me, these stereotypical characters had a stamp of reality in their makeup.

Friedkin has lost none of his deft touch and the film works in spite of its reliance on stereotypes.  I would give this film a solid 5 out of 5 stars simply for the very last twist in the film. If it doesn’t leave you sitting and looking at the screen shaking your head? I will be surprised.

William Friedkin and his wife Sherry on the re...
William Friedkin and his wife Sherry on the red carpet for the UK premiere of “Killer Joe” (Photo credit: EIFF)

26 thoughts on “Killer Joe (2011): Texas Trailer Trashy

  1. I love a movie with a good twist, and knowing that there are more than just one really makes me want to see this movie! I work at DISH with a girl who loves Mathew McConaughey, so when she told me that I had to see Killer Joe I didn’t quite believe her. Normally, I don’t like buying movies that I haven’t seen yet, so I’ll add this to my Blockbuster @Home queue that I have through DISH. I feel like this is a much safer way for me to see movies because I don’t have to pay for each one that I rent, so it gives me peace of mind when it just so happens that I don’t like a movie.

  2. Good review Mike. This movie was pretty sick, but in all of the right ways. Can’t go wrong with this cast either, as it seemed like everybody was on their A-game, despite the theatrical-approach at times.

  3. Amazing review! I really like your writing style. I was also hoping to see this but never made it to the theaters while it was around. I’ll have to find it somewhere else.

  4. 1) I’m going to keep an eye out for that one. It’s bound to show up on one of the cable channels.

    2) Your site is loading extremely slowly. Sometimes it won’t load at all and just loops. You may want to see what’s going on.

  5. It is really good to read film reviews as to whether may available at the store here. Now I can see it through your blog. A big thanks for visiting mine and look forward to reading more of yours soon.Best wishes-muhammad :-)

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