Theatrical Review: Killer Joe

(I’m in the midst of taking a little break from regular movie reviews for awhile now- after doing this sort of thing for around ten years now, it was just starting to seem more like work than fun, so I thought a little break was in order. But still, I had it in the back of my head that if I something that truly inspired me to get back to the keyboard during the break, I’d do it. Well, here you go…)

It’s a rainy night in a trailer park in Texas and young Chris Smith is a desperate man. He’s been involved in a small-time drug deal gone south and now he’s seeking the help of his father Ansel, much to the chagrin of Ansel’s new wife Sharla- who answers the door in the most revealing of ways. Chris needs $6,000 to pay for his problem, and of course, he doesn’t have the money and neither does Ansel. Chris has a plan though; Chris’ mother and Ansel’s former wife, Adele has an insurance policy worth $50,000 and Chris believes that the sole beneficiary is his sister Dottie, who also lives with Ansel and Sharla, and now Chris is plotting to have his mother killed.

Chris’ plan involves enlisting the services of a police detective named Joe Cooper who also acts as an assassin in his off-hours, and is known in certain circles as Killer Joe. Reluctantly, Ansel gives in to the plan, and Dottie, a “special” girl in many ways, also gives in, though not reluctantly at all… and from there, hijinks ensue.

This is the premise to Killer Joe the latest collaboration between celebrated director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) and playwright Tracy Letts, adapting his own play of the same name. Previously, the two collaborated on Bug with Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon and Harry Connick, Jr. I absolutely loved Bug to death and just was amazed at the directions that movie took, so I was certainly eager to see this latest collaboration between the two.

They did not disappoint at all, and for me personally, Killer Joe is one of the best movies that I’ve seen all year. This redneck-noir black comedy is your literal ride from start to finish, and honestly I could not tell how this was going to go from one moment to the next, though it’s all absolutely fitting in this little microcosmos that Letts and Friedkin have fashioned. The resulting film, at least to me, is sort of what you might get if you took a bit of David Lynch, a bit of John Waters, a whole lot of the Coen Brothers, and a dash of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible and mixed them all together.

This is economical filmmaking from Friedkin, though it goes a little beyond what he did with Letts prior in Bug which primarily takes place in one single location. The scope here is a little larger than that, but not by much. There’s not a wasted shot or moment in the entire film and I was literally on the edge of my seat to see what I was going to be hit with next.

The cast here is phenomenal. Emile Hirsch plays Chris, and he’s just wallowing in his own depravity- you just don’t like him from the start and want to see him get his comeuppance in the end, though Hirsch certainly does have that one thing that gives him some hope, and that’s his feelings for his sister Dottie, though that’s certainly questionable as well. Thomas Haden Church plays Ansel, and Ansel’s about as clueless as it gets and Church just eats that up in his portrayal, but when his eyes get opened later in the film, you can just feel the anger that’s going through him. Gina Gershon plays Sharla, a plotting and scheming bitch to the core and like Hirsch and Church, she’s just basking in it, and doing some particularly brave stuff on-screen near the film’s end. Juno Temple plays the virginal Dottie who has so much more going on with her than her family knows. There’s something extremely special about her, we know it and so does Killer Joe.

And speaking of Killer Joe, Matthew McConaughey is playing the part of his life with this one. It’s without a doubt one of the most intense performances he’s ever delivered and it literally shatters the image that’s been built up for McConaughey over the the course of all of the recent romantic comedies that he’s been a part of. Joe Cooper just oozes magnetism right from the start and at the same time, there’s extreme danger there as well. Kudos to McConaughey for taking this part and investing so much of himself into it. As far as I’m concerned, this is Oscar-worthy work, though I doubt he’ll get nominated.

Killer Joe is rated NC-17 and it earns that to the extreme. This is not for the faint of heart especially as the film builds to it’s cataclysmic ending. The vision here from Friedkin and Letts is totally uncompromised and it’s sure to spark conversation by it’s end. I’ve heard it said from Friedkin that you’re not supposed to “enjoy” this film in the traditional sense. I know where he’s coming from with that statement, but still, I enjoyed the hell out of this thing. I’m a big fan of the movie Glengarry Glen Ross another play adapted to film that at it’s core is about as dark and depressing a film as it gets, and yet I enjoy it to death and that common enjoyment is shared with Killer Joe. The enjoyment here is in watching this come to life, seeing these actors go to some places that you wouldn’t normally see them go in typical Hollywood productions and creating truly memorable moments that are indelible on the mind. Killer Joe is for me one of the very best movies I’ve seen this year, if not the best and for the truly adventurous out there when it comes to want you want to see on film, this, of course, is highly, highly recommended. Outstanding.