William Friedkin, 2011
It’s always tough reviewing films like these. Make no mistake, though the trailer paints it as a southern-fried black comedy, this leans a lot darker than the norm. A lot of it is very uncomfortable viewing, and it has little problem crossing the line into scenes which can feel genuinely unbearable. It’s almost impossible to take your eyes off it, but you may come out wishing you had.
That said, if you’re feeling up for a challenge there’s plenty to like and a good deal to hate about Killer Joe.
Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer, Into the Wild) stars as Chris, a Texan drug dealer left with impossible debts to the worst kind of creditor. Together with other members of his down-and-out trailer trash family (including Sideways‘ Thomas Haden Church and Bound‘s Gina Gershon), he conspires a plan to kill his estranged mother for the insurance money. This brings them into contact with Joe Copper (Matthew McConaughey), a local detective with a thriving sideline in contract killing. Unable to meet his advance, they reluctantly offer Chris’ unworldy 21-year-old sister Dottie (Juno Temple, Cracks) as a “retainer” until he can get the job done. It’s not the most promising start to their enterprise and things only get more screwed up from there.
This is a black comedy/thriller that takes things as dark as they go, and even then doesn’t shy from cracking a joke after. Based on the Tracy Letts play of the same name, it’s a film full of anger that thrives on complications, with a seething contempt for the family unit and a distinct lack of hope for the innocent. It actively pushes to challenge and shock you throughout the duration, maybe a little too boldly at times, and by the end credits your mind may be struggling to process what the hell you just watched.
It succeeds thanks to strong writing, confident direction and extremely bold work from a fearless cast. McConaughey dominates proceedings as the eponymous killer, channelling his appeal into something vastly more sinister than we’ve ever seen from him before. He’s been making a very strong comeback after a few years of coasting, and this could well be the strongest he’s ever been, exuding a serpentine charm as the horrifically unpredictable Joe. The tension in his many scenes is palpable, rising to torturous by the finale. When Dottie tells him “your eyes hurt”, you can certainly empathise.
Relative newcomer Juno Temple follows her breakout performance in Jordan Scott’s Cracks with another strong turn that’s sure to draw further attention, with Church providing most of the film’s lighter moments as possibly the stupidest character ever to draw breath in something that isn’t an out-an-out comedy. There isn’t really a weak link here, with Hirsch working well as the hapless protagonist and Gershon ably handling some truly unpleasant material.
Regarding those moments, at times Friedkin seems to revel a little too much in his love for the shocking, taking unpleasant scenes into places so toxic they threaten to overpower the film. Your tolerance for those may well determine your stance of the piece as a whole, which although somewhat of a shame is almost certainly intentional. This one delights in manipulating its audience, shifting tone readily any time it feels you might be getting too complacent or complicit, and that’s certain to piss quite a few people off.
Killer Joe is disgusting, unsettling viewing made with precision and wit. Whatever you feel after watching this one, it won’t be indifference. Whether you find the performances and inventive plotting enough to balance out the horrors on show, well that’s another matter. Personally I enjoy a good downer now and then, and this is a pretty damn good one. Just don’t ask me to endure it again any time soon.