Oscar-nominated director William Friedkin‘s NC-17-rated Killer Joe is as dark as they come. The film walks a fine line of being brutally graphic and unsettling one minute and then mostly hilarious the next. Friedkin’s direction is calculated and helps the grim script (written by Tracy Letts) grow into an untamed beast, full of sleazy and unlikable characters. The real show-stealer is in the performances, led by Matthew McConaughey and closely followed by Thomas Haden Church, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon and Emile Hirsch. Killer Joe is a repulsive tale of killing and backstabbing with hefty helpings of good old fashioned Texas deep-fried chicken.
Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is in need of a lot of cash and in a hurry. He’s in for a lot of money with the wrong people, so he runs with the first idea that sticks; somehow kill his evil mother and use her insurance money to pay off his debts and split the rest with his father and sister. He approaches his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and tells him the particulars, but things just don’t stick for Ansel. So, the two seek out a contracted killer/police officer named Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey).
Cooper agrees to do the hit as long as his rules are followed as strictly as possible. One little mistake on Chris’ end means death for him and his entire family.
If everything works out, Chris’ mother should get killed off by Joe, leaving the insurance money to his sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Since Chris doesn’t have any money to pay Joe up front he offers Dottie as a retainer until they can collect the money and payoff Joe.
Of course, nothing ever happens according to plan.
Killer Joe is twisted, dark as hell and one of the best films of the year. It’s got a wickedly sharp sense of humor that will offend most, but those that like their comedies dark and detestable will find lots to appreciate. Having not seen the play that the film is based on I can’t comment on how much of this film is director William Friedkin and how much of it is Tracy Letts‘ own source material. Strictly speaking on behalf of the film, Killer Joe is a slice of trailer-park trash heaven, lined with blood and chicken grease.
There are three key performances that heighten the film’s overall impact and makes it one for the ages. The most important is delivered by none other than Matthew McConaughey. The guy has been on a serious roll as of late, recently starring in gems like Magic Mike and The Lincoln Lawyer. In Killer Joe McConaughey is playing on an entirely different level that most will probably never see. His character Joe is psychotic by definition, but also just a damn interesting person to watch. He’s unpredictable and explosive, just waiting to snap and punch someone’s face in with whatever sharp object is near.
McConaughey flexes his comedic muscles in the role too, with on-time delivery that makes some of the under-the-radar jokes really stick and help evolve the character into a living breathing person that your natural instincts will tell you to hate, but you just can’t.
Providing most of the humor in the film is Thomas Haden Church. He plays the airhead dad that goes along with just about anything as long as there’s beer or money at stake. Church’s timing is similar to McConaughey’s, if not better because of his demonstrated skill as an actor that can convey comedy in some of the grimmest of situations. He works best when he has someone like McConaughey to interact with, but he still shines through some of the film’s weaker aspects, like Juno Temple.
Temple is given her meatiest role yet and she almost becomes the most forgettable thing in the entire film. It’s not because her performance is bad, but mostly because her performance just doesn’t hold up against the likes of Church and McConaughey. Dottie is the type of character that has followed orders her whole life and she continues to do so whenever Joe or her brother Chris barks something at her. Temple displays innocence and hope in the character and she feels the most complete by the end, but there’s nothing that really sticks out as spectacular.
Same can almost be said for Emile Hirsch, who continues to play yet another annoying asshole. His character Chris is not once seen through a bright light. Everything he does is out of plain selfishness and the whole movie only exists because he screws up majorly and needs everyone else to help bail him out. Hirsch channels that with no problems and his performance actually helps the film’s complexity set in.
Friedkin’s direction can attribute to the film’s transformation of hate and uneasiness from character to character. The titular Joe is the one that you’re not supposed to initially root for, but as the film progresses and Joe falls deeper and deeper into a psychotic state of killing and sex, the film starts to work on multiple levels at the same time. Hirsch’s Chris slowly becomes just as loathsome as Joe and suddenly the only person you’re left rooting for is Dottie.
The ending is something that will be talked about for some time to come, because it’s an instant-classic that forms almost out of nowhere and wraps things up tightly enough to feel complete, while still leaving much wiggle room for discussion and meaning.
I only have one very minor complaint with the film and that’s the lack of urgency with the story. Chris is told that he needs to collect the money ASAP or else he’s going to get killed, yet he’s given multiple extensions for no apparent reason. It doesn’t hurt the film’s focusing story, but it does make you question why Friedkin and Letts left that specific plot point so loose. Everything that happens as a result of this is cinematic gold and instantly cancels out any feelings of disappointment or the need for explanations.
Killer Joe is an uncomfortable roller-coaster ride that you won’t want to get off of. It will leave you squirming in your seat, full of anticipation for what is to come next. You won’t want to get up and leave or turn your eyes away, despite every single thing inside of you telling you otherwise. It’s sick, twisted and an impeccable film that plays off of some dark elements that are as funny and unsettling as the real world we live in. I’d have a really hard time suggesting this film to casual moviegoers, because Killer Joe really isn’t an ordinary movie that can be simplified as just violent, funny or something that pushes the boundaries beyond conceivable limits.
Killer Joe is an incredibly dense and powerful film that represents an approach that hasn’t been used in film for a long time. Audiences will disown the film, but mistakenly so, due to the sexual content and uncontainable rage. These are the reasons why the film stuck with me and why I couldn’t turn my eyes away. It’s not shock cinema or a film that tries striking at your cords for the hell of it. Friedkin has made the best film of his in thirty years and in doing so gets another Oscar-worthy performance out of Matthew McConaughey.
Killer Joe – 10/10