William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist and The French Connection, brings a dark, twisted, violent story to the big screen from a play written by Tracy Letts (same person who wrote Bug, which was also directed for the screen by Friedkin in 2006). Killer Joe isn’t for everyone. It knows what it is and makes no apologies for it. Trust me, it’s rated NC-17 for a reason. Actually for a lot of reasons. It is daring and bold, and Friedkin and his terrific cast hit the ground running and never look back.
Emile Hirsch plays Chris, a drug dealer who has had his stash stolen by his own mother. He is now left in debt and owes $6,000 for his bad choices in gambling. And if he can’t come up with it soon then he’s a dead man. So he visits his dad (Thomas Hayden Church) in the trailer park and there he hatches a plan to collect his mother’s life insurance policy that’s worth $50,000. The only problem is Chris’s mother is alive and well and that has to change in order for them to collect. Luckily, everyone hates this woman so perhaps she won’t be missed, but Chris and the rest of his family have to be careful. This leads to the hiring of Detective Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) or just simply “Killer Joe.”
He is a detective during the day and a hired killer on the side. A man who likes to dress in black and would appear to be nothing short of a Southern gentleman. Joe likes to be paid up front and his asking price is $25,000 and, of course, Chris doesn’t have that kind of money. At least not yet. That doesn’t go over well for Joe until he spots Chris’s little sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Then he makes an offer to Chris that once his business is done, his fee gets paid. But until then he will keep Dottie as a retainer. And that’s just the beginning. There’s more to Joe than Chris or anyone else could have ever imagined.
Hirsch, Church, Temple, and Gina Gershon (who plays Chris’s stepmom) make the perfect messed up, white trash family to possibly ever grace the screen. Gershon gives a nice performance of a wife who doesn’t care (she answers the door bottomless when she doesn’t know who you are) and is always up to no good. Basically, she’s a greedy bitch who sleeps around and being married doesn’t mean a thing. But don’t worry, she gets brutally put in to her place. It’s borderline disgusting to watch. Church plays a father who has no smarts and drinks from sun up to sun down. And most fathers stand up for their children, but not this one. He is spineless and only cares about himself which isn’t saying much. I know these characters sound despicable and they are, but Church and Gershon really get in to it and don’t mind looking or playing rough.
Hirsch has really shown his talents in films like Alpha Dog and Into the Wild. But then he does movies like Speed Racer and The Darkest Hour. But don’t worry, he is in top form once again in this film. His character seems to not care about anyone except for his sister. She is the only person who he fights for and tries to protect. Temple almost steals the entire film. Your captivated with her in every scene she is in. She’s the only one who still contains innocence. But in a family like hers, how long can that really last? For most of Dottie’s childhood, it’s been a living hell. She has become numb with everything around her and, at times, it appears she is living in her own little fantasy world. But when Joe starts coming around and he starts showing her love and attention, the worst thing possible begins to happen: Chris’s little sister starts to fall for Joe.
Then there is Killer Joe himself, McConaughey. Ever since The Lincoln Lawyer, he has taking a different path in his career where he plays these characters he has never played before and taking risks that he now seems confident with. And in Killer Joe, you have never seen him do anything like this. He is nice and charming, but can be barbaric and sadistic under his old black cowboy hat. Earlier I said Temple almost steals the entire film and I said that for a reason. Because if it wasn’t for McConaughey’s performance, she would have indeed stole the entire thing. Just like the characters in the film, every time Joe shows up you don’t know what to expect. There is nothing more dangerous than being unpredictable, which makes McConaughey’s madness so appealing and no matter how disgusting things get, you can’t get yourself to look away.
Friedkin puts the audience in a dirty, gritty Southern-fried nightmare. Killer Joe definitely gets its hands bloody and does it with a smile. It is ugly, very sexual, and I dare say even funny at times. Yet it’s done with courage with no boundaries in sight and you have to respect that. Honestly, seeing McConaughey transform in to this slick, manipulative evil is worth the price of admission alone. Never has McConaughey been so different but so damn good at it.
Brandon Vick is a member of The Music City Film Critics’ Association and the Southeastern Film Critics Association, the resident film critic of the SoBros Network, and the star of The Vick’s Flicks Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @SirBrandonV and be sure to search #VicksFlicks for all of his latest movie reviews.
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