102 min., dir. by William Friedkin, with Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, and Juno Temple
Violence, debauchery, murder, power, money — these are the cornerstones of any good crime story. Throw in a little dark comedy and you have the mixture that results in Killer Joe. A modern day Shakespearean tragedy from famed playwrite Tracy Letts (based on his stage play), Killer Joe is sick, twisted, and shocking, yet finds a way to be morbidly endearing.
In debt to a thug who is threatening his life, Chris (Emile Hirsch) has a plan to obtain the money he needs to pay off this debt. He easily convinces his father to agree to hire a hitman to kill his ex-wife, who is also Chris’s mother. After the deed is done, her insurance policy will pay a hefty sum to Chris’s sister Dottie (Juno Temple), the benefactor of the policy. Luckily, Chris hears about a Dallas police officer, Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who also works as a hired killer. The fact that neither men have any money to hire Killer Joe doesn’t stop them from inquiring. They figure the $50,000 payout will be enough to pay Killer Joe, and divide up nicely to fix all their problems. Stone-cold and methodical Killer Joe doesn’t work that way, but cooks up a pleasing contingency plan that sets the whole trailer park ablaze.
Joe Cooper is the character the film’s title alludes to, but it’s young Dottie who moves the entire story, both in plot and theme. Killer Joe takes place in a world where everyone is looking to take advantage of the innocence they encounter, and they do the most despicable of things. It’s a place where the corrupt think they can escape, but really only devolve into lesser beings. Killer Joe treads through very familiar waters to bring these ideas to life, but its unsettling atmosphere and dark (though witty) sensibilities guide it in a different direction.
Only a pairing like Tracy Letts and William Friedkin could bring together a cast of well-known names and get them to partake in some widely degrading acts. Killer Joe is not a balls-to-the-wall gore fest, but it will turn the stomach of the squeamish – those who see the movie may never look at a chicken leg the same way again. However, many may never look at Matthew McConaughey the same way again either. Until now, the only standable McConaughey roles were the ones he was allowed to oversell. As the titular character, McConaughey exhibits a restrained level of sociopathic fury that’s both chilling and mesmerizing.
The reality is that Killer Joe will turn a lot of people off. In fact, if you take it at face value, you might be sick to your stomach. There are enough tactfully played moments to ease everyone through to the other side, but Killer Joe will leave its mark on everyone. It’s the type of film that brings you back to Earth by affirming the notion that we’re all damaged. Perhaps we’re not quite as tangled, but the tainted nature of this film’s characters is undoubtedly ubiquitous. Even if you don’t enjoy it, Killer Joe wants to make you uneasy, and it will succeed in doing so.