Make no mistake about it… KILLER JOE is one fucked-up film, and that’s certainly not a bad thing.
William Friedkin’s film, adapted from Tracy Letts’ stage play (he also wrote the screenplay), could easily fall into the trap of playing up redneck stereotypes, in which case KILLER JOE would accomplish nothing more than serving as a parody of trailer park trash acting their worst. But due to a superb cast from top to bottom, KILLER JOE turns out to be a fantastically disturbing story that walks the fine line between dark comedy and intensely uncomfortable drama.
KILLER JOE is centered around the Smiths, a white trash family deep in the heart of Texas who are all trying to get their cut of their mother’s insurance policy in the event that they have her killed. Chris (Emile Hirsch) is at the heart of the plan, facing the dilemma of having to pay $6000 he doesn’t have back to a cocaine dealer he owes or be killed. He raises the idea of hiring a hitman, Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), to off mom on spec, and both his dad/her ex-husband Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), his stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) and his sister Dottie (Juno Temple) are in with the understanding that Dottie is the sole beneficiary on the $50,000 policy, and they’ll all get their cuts when the deed is done.
Too bad for them that’s not how Killer Joe works. He wants his money up front to perform a service, one that’s made all the more convenient by him being a detective for the Dallas Police Department. However, taking a liking to Chris’ sister, he would be willing to entertain the idea of a retainer – her. With their choices fairly limited and time running out on Chris getting the money to keep himself alive, the deal gets made. What that set-up, KILLER JOE doesn’t have to do much heavy lifting, in that letting a group of truly deplorable people continue to exist as such is what keeps the film crisp. Friedkin doesn’t have to do too much with Letts’ script, except let these characters be who they are.
Gershon and Church trash it up just the right amount to lend some authenticity to this family and their hick roots, but it’s the trio of McConaughey, Hirsch and Temple and their twisted relationships that make KILLER JOE a truly special film. There’s an unspoken romantic love that seems to exist between Chris and Dottie, with most of those emotions flowing from him to her. How else do you explain him having naked karate dreams about her? There is a great deal of innocence to her, and big brother protectiveness does layer Chris’ uneasiness in giving his sister over to Killer Joe. However, beneath that, Letts subtlety hints that Chris’ fears over losing his sister to a contract killer are more about him losing a deeper connection, one that goes beyond just family. As awful a person as Chris is, Hirsch does bring vulnerability to a guy who doesn’t know any better but to make such horrendous choices in his life. From the looks of it, it’s most likely nurture over nature that put him in those positions. He’s not the type of loser you want to encourage to turn his life around, because watching him dig that whole a little deeper as time wears on is fascinating. Some people are just born with a dark cloud over their head, and Hirsch is able to bring that out in Chris without it feeling too overwhelming.
Temple does a wonderful job conveying the interesting mix of innocence and cluelessness that Dottie needs to work. This is a special girl, one who thought she had a fat kid as her boyfriend back in like the third grade, even though they never spoke about it, hung out or even talked. Under normal circumstances, she’s the type of person who really shouldn’t be left alone without responsible adult supervision on the scene at all times. But Temple never takes her down the path of dumb. She may not fully understand what the arrangement is between the rest of her family and Killer Joe, but it’s not because she’s stupid, which would then, in turn, make her relationship with him a bit dicier. Watching him use business to become romantically involved to a degree with an idiot would be wrong. As it stands now, it reaches the acceptable levels of unsettling.
McConaughey will absolutely blow you out of the water though as Killer Joe. This may even register as his best performance to date. There’s a cockiness to him that comes with being a killer for hire, as lives are always held within the palm of your hand. At any moment, you’re capable of slaughtering everyone in the room with you, and there are scenes in KILLER JOE that are ripe with tension for being built that way. Beyond that smugness, there’s always an inherent danger to McConaughey’s titular performance. His actions will always speak louder than his words, and whether it’s his stern discussions with Chris, his one-on-one interactions with Dottie or the film’s jaw-dropping climactic sequence, he can shift from quiet and delicate to forcible and deadly with the quickness. You can’t help but take your eyes off McConaughey, wondering where he’s taking the character next, while, at the same time, being afraid of the path he might take. In KILLER JOE, McConaughey represents everything that’s bad, but here his being bad is oh so good.
Friedkin has put together a tremendous cast for KILLER JOE that comes firing on all cylinders. You may not remember it for being as humorous as it can be in moments, because its violence winds up trumping that… but the rich and deeply flawed characters make for an interesting trip to the trailer park that never feels derivative.
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