Killer Joe (2011)


Based on a 1993 play by Tracy Letts (who’d later write August: Osage County), Killer Joe is a black comedy/southern gothic crime tale directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist). The plot concerns a trailer trash family whose son, Chris (Emilie Hirsch, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, The Girl Next Door) involves them in a murder for hire plot to take kill his estranged mother for her insurance policy to help pay off a drug related debt. He and his alcoholic father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church, Demon Knight, Don McKay) hire a police officer who also moonlights as a hit man named “Killer” Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, True Detective, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation). Chris and Ansel plan to pay Joe his $25,000 fee after the life insurance policy is cashed in, but Joe wants the money up front and takes Chris’s younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple, Black Mass) as a “retainer”.

killer-joe-movieFriedkin’s previous film, Bug, was also based on a play by Tracy Letts, and Killer Joe makes a nice companion piece to it. You can tell Friedkin feels comfortable filming uncomfortable situations in claustrophobic environments. Many of the important scenes in Killer Joe takes place inside the family’s trailer home, and it’s cramped space coupled with the personalities of the inhabitants make for intense viewing.

Killer Joe made quite a stir during it’s limited release in the summer of 2012, as it had an NC-17 rating; the last film to be released theatrically with that rating was Showgirls, which interestingly also starred Gina Gershon. Friedkin refused to trim anything to get the R-rating, and Killer Joe flopped at the box office. I’m not sure having an R rating would have changed anything in that regard as the subject matter isn’t for the mainstream. This is a film with no heroes and very little hope.

joeKiller Joe is a film that should have been made in the late 90’s, when such mean-spirited thrillers were en vogue. It’s lurid plot combined with it’s violence and black comedy make it stand proudly along such films as Freeway. In fact, the dichotomy actress Juno Temple and actor Matthew McConaughey slightly mirrors the one between Keifer Sutherland and Reese Witherspoon in the before mentioned film. Temple should be getting more work for what she does here. Dottie is the only true “innocent” in the film, and her use as a poker chip between her family and Joe makes her endearing, despite the fact that she has no compunctions about Joe killing her mom.

But the real star is Emil Hirsch as Chris, the most morally conflicted character in the film. He’s stupid, but not as stupid as his father, and actually develops a conscience as the film goes on. He loves his sister and wants to protect her, but he also wants to live. He and his family are pimping Dottie out to Joe, and he feels horrible about it. Even though he deserves all the hell he brings down on himself, his slow descent into destruction is hard to watch.

KillerJoe_2010.12.13_Day23of28_MG_8655.jpgGina Gershon (Best of the Best 3: No Turning Back, Bound) stars as Sharla, Chris’s step-mom, whose cheating on her new husband Chris. Her character helps the opening establishing shot of the film let you know all you need to about the screwed up family dynamic these people share. Gershon is a talented actress and her performance as a small town bimbo reminded me of people I knew from back home in rural North Carolina. Her performance calls for a rather unpleasant and dehumanizing scene that I won’t spoil, but will say Gershon is a brave actress for going through with.

With an ending that is set up to deliberately troll the audience, Killer Joe is a hateful little movie full of a lot of ugliness that will ensure you never look at a chicken leg the same way ever again. This a film readers of the blog (or of Jim Thompson) will most likely love, and anything with Matthew McConaughey playing a psychopath is well worth watching. Check it out.




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