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.

Rodrigo Garcia has certainly come a long way since directorial disaster Passengers (2008). Mother and Child (2009), written and directed by Garcia, on the surface, is a seemingly straight forward character drama. But as the story, and its characters, unfold it becomes clear that Garcia has made a highly provocative film, both brave and brazen.

A young girl of just fourteen has consensual sex but is not of a legal age to be guardian to the child she carries. Naturally, it is her own mother who acts as legal guardian, putting the child up for adoption, believing it to be for the best. Everything that follows comes back to this moment, this decision, this choice. Mother and Child, carefully, yet decidedly, advocates the absolute and unquestionable bond between a mother and her biologically carried child, implicating in its wake that relationships not born of this physical connection are somehow inherently less significant and consequently more easily dissolved. Resultantly, the male figures in the film are there only as enablers for the women, whose relationships of worth are solely with their female offspring.

Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) is a self-assured woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. Her forward nature and abundance of confidence make her terrifyingly attractive to men and incredibly intimidating to other women. As I have already indicated, the men in the film are there strictly as enablers; Elizabeth proclaims that her quest for her biological parents concerns only the finding of her biological mother, “There is no they. A father’s not a part of my imagination.” As such, her boss, and lover, Paul (Samuel L Jackson) is submissive and easily coerced by whatever shots she calls; so it is the notion of a woman intimidating other women that is of interest here. Later, when Elizabeth visits a female doctor who tries (and fails) to endear herself, we learn that Elizabeth has had her tubes tied illegally, across the border, many years ago as a minor.  The hostility that follows makes apparent that it is her role as woman-who-cannot-procreate that truly terrifies the women who encounter her, reiterating her own declaration from the beginning of the film, “I’m not in the sisterhood, I’m my own person.” The  somewhat contentious point being that woman are not to be their “own” person in a singular way, rather, they are “naturally” heteronormative procreative beings defined through their gender as both mother and child. 

Karen (Annette Bening) is socially awkward and carriers her guilt, regret, pain and suffering around like the latest item of fashion. Her social ineptitude so extreme that she is at times comedic, though her character is for the most part understandably damaged and definitely pitiable. Her whole life is explained as a process of intense grief over the loss of her daughter coupled with the irreparably destructive relationship she had with her own mother; her existence deeply flawed and empty because these relationships were not cherished, the bond between mother and child destroyed.

Finally, Lucy is a woman who cannot have children and as such turns to adoption for hope of raising a child. The process of adoption is constantly called into question as is her ability to be a mother – the implication that becoming a mother is a “natural” occurrence and not a constructed relationship between two people. There is often mention of the theory that it is the “time spent” rather than the biological connection that marks the bond between mother and child, though this mention is always by someone whose credibility has already been undermined and whose authority and motivation for utterance is questionable at best. Subtle and careful in execution the final word is certainly that adoptive relationships are more difficult than “natural” ones and indeed that such relationships require a greater effort to work – the inference being that the best case scenario for a young mother is to keep her offspring and for blood line relatives of a child to be present in the experience of one’s life.

Then, at the crux of the film, returning to Elizabeth, she struggles with her earlier resolve to live an independent life and embarks upon a simultaneous search for mother and child. The moment she truly breaks down is when she stands in as Garcia’s authorial voice: inside a lift, Elizabeth’s blind neighbour Violet enters and Elizabeth remains hidden despite her being particularly and overwhelmingly upset by the sight of Violet trying to fend for herself, gently metaphoring the tragedy Garcia sees for children who are let out into the world without the guidance of a strong maternal figure.

It feels very much as though Garcia’s narrative aspires to the dizzying postmodern heights of Viriginia Woolf’s seminal text Mrs Dalloway, though it falls short due to both aesthetic and tonal choices that serve to maintain a strict level of commerciality. That said, the film is engaging and thoughtful in equal measure; its pitfalls forgivable when considering the work as a whole. Beyond the sometimes controversial and frequently contemplative motivational plot developments, it is the performances that drive the narrative forward: a sense of anticipation from Annette Bening’s perfectly hysterical yet believably remorseful role as the woman who was wronged by her mother and consequently wronged her own daughter; and Naomi Watts’ understandable remove yet forcibly strong resolve as the abandoned daughter, an individual from an early age struggling to come to terms with her own wants, needs and suggested purpose as a vessel for “giving life”. Slow-paced and cautious in its inference, Mother and Child offers a complicated yet somehow simplistic view of women’s role in life as pertaining to some responsibility as well as capacity for giving and producing. Most likely a film to divide viewers, Mother and Child is well worth the watch – even if only to see which side of the white picket fence you stand on.

Mother and Child was released in Australian cinemas on June 17 through Hopscotch Films.