Killer Joe

August 8, 2012

Killer Joe Cooper suffers psychopathy. He is a manipulative, egocentric, unempathetic, guiltless symbol for the patriarch and the Name of the Law – penal, and later, familial. His character commands control and receives submission from both on-screen characters and viewers alike. Therein is the problematic in “enjoying” Killer Joe.

There are five central characters; after Joe there is Ansel, the endearing but incompetent patriarch before Joe enters and assumes the throne in their domestic domain, and Chris, Ansel’s rogue, harebrained son who comes up with central plot device of killing his own mother to collect on the life insurance. Whilst Ansel and Chris are depicted as unintelligent, foolish and are often the subject of some particularly base jokes, they are kept just barely on the right side of audience alignment by the film’s further and more persecuting jokes aimed at the female characters. Of whom there is Adele – the absent mother mostly referred to as a bitch and only shown once where we see her dead – or at least near-dead – body during the patriarch’s removal of her impotent reign. Then there is Sharla, the deceitful, scheming, unfaithful woman who represents whore. Joining these two already glowing representations of women is Dottie, the virginal, naive, slightly affected and potentially mentally challenged daughter and ultimately little more than the retainer following a contract transaction between aforementioned patriarchal figures Joe, Ansel and Chris. After the film removes the impotent, it condemns the whore and finally rapes and damages its virgin. Dottie is almost the film’s innocent charmer until the final scene where she too forgoes any previous sense of morality, ethics, empathy, compassion – heck, humanity, and callously kills the only people she supposedly loves and cares for. The final sting being that all the concern for the weak and seemingly innocent version of the feminine was still a waste of male time and energy as she, like all women, was only to turn on the males in the end.

But what’s most concerning about Killer Joe is the guise that it is a “Black Comedy”. The entire Smith family are depicted as pathetic and parasitic to society. Although the focus is never on Joe as an officer of the law, we are always aware that he represents the penal code, societal structure and of course the Name of the Law. Here, with a family that are willing and eager to turn upon themselves, leaving one another out to dry, Joe is the only character with whom the audience are even close to aligned. Are we to take then that psychopathy is preferable to those who are depicted here as the economic dregs of society?

Certainly it is possible to take controversial, uncomfortable subject matter and satirise it in a way that is bleak and comedic; depictions of depravity that leave the viewer with feelings of uncomfortable self reflection on their ability to find such material amusing or films that expose their protagonists as weak, unstable – Happiness is a great example of such an achievement; but Killer Joe does none of these things. It may well be true that Matthew McConaughey’s performance is brilliant and even that the character of Joe captures onscreen the displays of psychopathy to perfection, but enabling that character control over the audience and their responses is a curious and pivotal choice for the film’s ultimate success. The result, unfortunately, is a room full of laughter – not at the suggestion of a misogynist act – but at the humiliation of the act carried out.

There are further issues in the film and certainly this is a gloss in terms of examples but what’s problematic about Killer Joe isn’t that its lead character suffers psychopathy, nor that it employs humour in a tale of such subject matter, but that it uses the psychopathy as a tool for seduction through which it repeatedly revels in the successful delivering of dangerous ideology.

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