Review: Killer Joe


[This review was originally posted as part of our South by Southwest Film 2012 coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with its theatrical release.]

I honestly don’t know how to introduce this review for Killer Joe. It goes to extremes I’ve never been interested in (or still not interested in). However, because of the film’s envelope-pushing nature, Killer Joe has gathered quite the name for itself here at SXSW. However, all of that hype tends to sway to either positive or negative extremes, creating one of the most polarizing films I’ve ever seen.

Not being familiar with William Friedkin or Tracy Letts, I had no idea what to expect from this film, other than Alex’s frantic attempts to ensure I catch it and the brief synopsis on the SXSW website. Billed as “A totally twisted deep-fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story,” I should have known better than to not take the tagline seriously.

Killer Joe
Director: William Friedkin
Rating: NC-17
Release Date: July 27, 2012

Facing death by some businessman/rich figure, Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is told that his Mom has a $50K insurance policy with his younger sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), as the sole beneficiary. Armed with this knowledge, he conspires with his Dad, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), and indirectly with his Step-Mom, Sharla (Gina Gershon), to murder her by hiring a Dallas sheriff/hired killer, Joe (Matthew McConaughey). However, because they’re unable to afford his asking price, Joe instead takes Dottie as a “retainer” until they’re able to make the money, leading to a series of outrageous events that culminate into one of the most amazing/disturbing third acts in a film ever.

Killer Joe is adapted from a play by Tracy Letts, which calls for a majority of the scenes being very dialogue-driven, shot with long takes, and typically set in a small number of sets. However, that’s not to say the film is full of “boring” conversations, as there are some minor action scenes sprinkled along to break from the heavy dialogue. However, the film is moved along by “moments;” this might be a hugely obvious observation to make, but these “moments” are different in Killer Joe‘s world.

Simply put, every character is racked with so many problems. I can’t spoil what happens, but what I can say is thatKiller Joe takes the dysfunctional family and exaggerates it into an extreme level. I honestly wish I could speak freely of the final act I alluded to earlier, but I don’t want to spoil any of it. Just know that, however you may have felt about the film up until that point, it all goes away in how outrageous things turn out.

Again, given the film’s roots as a play, Killer Joe is very dialogue-driven. The chemistry among the actors is great, united by McConaughey’s memorable performance. I’m not gonna lie, I’m not the biggest Matthew McConaughey fan. However, his role as the title character was phenomenal. Despite Joe’s twisted interests, he’s the glue that holds all of the characters together. Paired along with him is Temple’s role as the 12-year-old Dottie, who plays just as much of a pivotal role in the family’s shenanigans as Chris does. Church also delivers a wholly understated performance as the family’s patriarch. His monotone, deadpan lines provided some of the funniest moments in the film.

Killer Joe is an outrageously disturbing film full of sex and violence mixed together in a juicy dark DARK comedy shell. Friedkin and Letts are very, very twisted men. Depending on your interests, you’ll either appreciate everything they two of them were able to translate into the film, or you’ll absolutely hate everything and wonder what happened to traditional films. But seriously, Killer Joe is like an exploitation film without feeling like one. By reading that, as well as the film’s tagline, you should know which side of the fence you fall upon.