Over the years we have been given some great villains in cinema who, with the talent of the actors playing them, have claimed a place in movie fandom. Think Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs), Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins in Psycho), Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates in Misery) – all honest in their actions, no matter how destructive, selfish, and evil. In Killer Joe, Matthew McConaughey finds the perfect role to blend his natural charm fans have come to love with the slimy, murderous ways of a killer, resulting in a modern mixture of what made those past movie villains so much fun to love to hate.
“Killer Joe is a pretty outrageous story,” says McConaughey. “This film was a departure from any project I’ve ever worked on before. The writing and the rhythms are different than anything I’ve ever read or been a part of before.”
“I’m particularly excited to see McConaughey in this part as he brings in so many different elements,” adds co-star Emile Hirsch. ”It’s something very unexpected from him and it reminds me a bit of John Travolta doing Pulp Fiction.
Killer Joe Cooper (McConaughey) enters the picture when Chris Smith (Hirsch) convinces his family – father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), step-mother Darla (Gina Gershon), and sister Dottie (Juno Temple) – to hire Joe, who happens be a detective and hit man, to kill his mother and collect her $50,000 life insurance policy. Chris could then pay off his debts to a drug lord and his family would have some cash left over. Living in a beat-to-hell trailer, it’s a dark and crazy, but intriguing idea they all sign off on.
“There’s a thin line between good and evil, and there is the possibility of evil in all of us,” says director William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist). ”I myself have felt all of the emotions in my films at one time or another. I was drawn to this project as it’s about innocence, victimhood, vengeance, and tenderness.”
Killer Joe is an adaptation of writer Tracy Letts’ play of the same name. The stage production premiered in 1998 at the famed Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, leading to acclaimed productions in New York, London, and other cities around the world. It has been performed in 15 countries and 12 languages since its Chicago debut. In order to maintain its original appeal and impact, Letts chose to pen the film’s screenplay himself.
“He even went as far to create an in-depth memo we could pass around to everybody involved on the production,” Friedkin notes. “We followed that pretty closely and it was an eye-opener in terms of what was the driving force underneath everything we were doing. In my humble opinion, it’s that second level that makes the performances in this film so very rich and very real.”
“The movie is, first and foremost, an actor’s dream,” adds Hirsch. ”The dialogue-rich scenes and well-rounded characters created the potential for amazing performances which seemed limitless. I think that’s what’s so great about Tracy’s writing. You can have these morally dubious and questionable characters, and he still manages to maintain some kind of integrity in some corner of their souls. That is a very hard thing to do as a writer.”
Part of that integrity is written and delivered through Joe and Dottie. With the family unable to give Joe his fee upfront for the job, he decides to take Dottie as a retainer, or collateral, until he’s been paid in full. That action soon turns to Joe’s affection for Dottie, and she for Joe. You’re never quite sure if it’s true love, but there is definitely motivation for them both to go along with the budding relationship.
“He evidently lost his sense of family pretty early on in his life, so the only structure this guy gets is from his job,” McConaughey says. “He needs a family – it’s what he didn’t have.”
“Dottie has so many different layers, which are slowly exposed within each scene, especially her scenes with Killer Joe, as she is invoked in this weird sexual awakening,” explains Temple. “She has an overwhelming love for her brother, in that she doesn’t want to disappoint him, but ultimately realizes that he has nothing going for himself. She can’t stay with this dysfunctional family forever and she wants to go live her life.”
McConaughey adds, “Her family has whored her out and bartered her to this man, who they don’t know, as a retainer to kill their mother. Underneath Joe thinks this to be quite despicable. For that he wants to help her escape, but he also realizes that he can save himself along the way. Not in a self-righteous way, but in this biblical, Old Testament, fire and brimstone type way by teaching Chris, Ansel, and Sharla – especially Sharla – some lessons.”
Those “lessons” lead to an intense and brutal ending scene between the entire family and Killer Joe that will sit on your mind for days, and you will never see fried chicken the same way again. It’s no secret, once you’ve seen the film, why it’s rated NC-17. The Seven Sees put together an inside look at Killer Joe, with help from the actors and director.