Film Review – Killer Joe
Killer Joe (2012) is a movie—let’s start there. Now, is it a good one? That depends on who you ask. To some, it may be one of the worst films of the year, and to others, one of the best. Even now, as I write this review, I’m still a little flabbergasted over what I’ve seen. This is a sick, twisted, and very dark exercise in depravity. Just when you think it won’t go to a certain place, it goes there, and beyond. But at the same time, it is immensely entertaining, hilarious, and riveting. The performances are mesmerizing, the direction is expertly done, and the dialogue keeps the viewer glued to the screen, even when the characters are doing extremely brutal things to each other. It revels in its own screwed-up world and plays around in perverse glee, bringing us along for the ride. One thing is for certain: nothing else I’ve seen this year is quite like this.
The director is William Friedkin and the writer is Tracy Letts (adapted from his play). These two have worked together before, in the highly underrated Bug (2006). In that, Ashley Judd’s character gets in way over her head when she meets the unstable war veteran played by Michael Shannon. Here, we are in a similar place as far as look and feel, but with characters that find themselves in much deeper waters. This time, we are introduced to the strange and rundown Smith family. Chris (Emile Hirsch), the son, finds himself in a load of trouble, owing money to some dirty people. In a desperate attempt to get rich quick, Chris convinces his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), to get a hitman to kill Chris’s evil mother (Ansel’s ex-wife) so that they can collect on the insurance money. They hire Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a police detective who also moonlights as a contract killer (or is it the other way around?) to do the job. And, as expected, things don’t go as smoothly as planned. Mistakes are made, leading to dire consequences, and that’s when things really start to take off.
To describe the plot further is futile, because no words could accurately explain it—it needs to be seen to be believed. As Chris and his family get further and further into trouble, so does the film rise in its shock and absurdity. Joe Cooper is not a good man; he is a lowdown, disgusting human being, and the things he does to this family once they’re in his grasp shows the kind of psychopath he is. He has little sympathy and regard for Chris and Ansel, and the way his eyes light up when he meets Chris’s younger sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), shows a glimpse into his disturbed mind. On the flip side, none of the other characters are that good, either. The fact that Chris and Ansel hatch this idiotic plan, along with Dottie and Ansel’s current wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon), agreeing to it, doesn’t exactly make them the ideal American family. Everyone is either dumb, deplorable, or both. They make their beds and wind up having to sleep in them.
Each of the performers is to be commended for the sheer bravery of taking on these roles. Emile Hirsch is very good at playing a weasel, desperate to survive at almost any cost. Thomas Haden Church gets a lot of laughs with his straight, monotone delivery. He can say only a few words and get a good reaction. Juno Temple plays her character as confused but aware, with the innocence of childhood mixed with the harsh reality of her situation. And the only way I can describe Gina Gershon’s performance is with “full commitment.” She is tasked do some very difficult things, and how she is somehow able to balance both the horror and hilarity of her character’s plight is something to behold.
This is easily one of Matthew McConaughey’s best performances. He mixes his raw sexuality and charisma with a darker, slimier, more sinister layer beneath. McConaughey can seduce and repel at the same time, and while he does some truly evil things, everything is within the context of the character. Some may be surprised by how good McConaughey is here—I am not. He has always been effective at playing this kind of character. In Frailty (2001), The Lincoln Lawyer (2011), Bernie (2011), and even all the way back to Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994), when he isn’t asking us to like him is when he is at his best. Thankfully, it seems he has finally made a turn and is starting to take some interesting, more challenging roles in recent years. Someone must have told him that he doesn’t always have to say “yes” to a romantic comedy, and it’s starting to pay off.
Killer Joe earns its NC-17 rating. There is full frontal nudity, brutal bloody violence, and scenes so outlandish they will certainly turn some people away. But Friedkin and Letts (along with the actors) make it very funny and engaging, as well. Friedkin’s direction is taut and Letts’s writing is stripped of unnecessary filler. It’s so good at being wrong—a “dark comedy” in the full sense of the term. I don’t see how this could be a financial success, but as a cult film I can see it gaining a good following. Whether you end up loving or hating it, it knows what it wants to do and does it well. For me, I’m looking forward to seeing it again.
Final Grade: A
Also, be sure to check out our interview with William Friedkin & Emile Hirsh from SIFF.