Killer Joe

Killer Joe

***1/2

Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

I don't know how much truth there is to there being seven unique stories, and every other one being some reductive combination of these. William Friedkin's Killer Joe, adapted from Tracy Letts' stage play, is a fun, sleazy and engaging little picture which blends the tropes of a deeply twisted family drama and a fairly bog standard One Easy Score crime thriller.

Chris (Emile Hirsch) is in deep trouble - he's in debt to the local loan shark for $15,000. In desperation, he and his mostly reprehensible trailer trash family concoct a cockamamie plan to kill his stepmother for her life insurance policy. "Is she doing anybody any good?", Chris mumbles to his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) as they scheme.

Copy picture

Enter Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), both a lawman and a professional murderer. Joe wants cash up front, but when the hapless family can't pay, he takes Chris' younger, blonde and virgin sister, Dottie (Juno Temple) as a "retainer". She's Joe's to sleep with until they pay up, no questions asked.

The great strength of Letts' black comedy-thriller script is that of its well-sketched characters, and her skill in making them relatable (if not at all likeable). Its structure is clear; pouring ever more misfortune on the loathsome Chris' ever-narrowing shoulders, while he ruminates on his life. "Nothing's worse than regrets; not cancer, not sharks, not nothing!" Dottie is the best character in the film, she's a mostly-oblivious innocent. But as the story progresses, the movie finds her quiet steel.

Even the loan shark has his moment - skilfully delivering a rather beautiful and amiable "good old boys" soliloquy about family and friendship; then without missing a beat, promising to bind Chris and bury him alive.

There's not a single sex scene in the film, but Friedkin has fun seeing how far he can push the envelope with swift, bloody violence and frequent full-frontal female nudity. (That Killer Joe received the NC-17 kiss of death is unsurprising.) The best scenes are when Dottie and Joe share time; the old and new of middle-America. On their first meeting, Dottie says that Joe "has a nice heart." If he does, it's trapped between thick layers of misogyny and a distinct unwillingness to suffer fools.

A long, lascivious scene with Joe and Dottie is superbly handled - where she's ordered to wear a new $3 thrift store dress for his pleasure. We see everything; Joe turns his back and slowly elicits instructions. He represses the sexual id but demands the power anyway.

Matthew McConaughey gives an engaging, charismatic performance as the titular character, speaking with a thick Texas drawl which has the effect of making nearly every conversation with him sound like a deadpan joke. Thomas Haden Church delivers the simplest performance of the movie as the one-step-from-being-a-hobo father of the family. His is the most expertly delivered performance; unapologetic, and with magnificently timed comic relief.

Friedkin continues to prove himself an expert film craftsman, and he is aided immeasurably by director of photography Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff, The Passion Of The Christ), and their superior staging and expert lighting. The production design is perfect. The sound is even better - a lively mix, with superior sound editing.

Killer Joe's clever and obfuscating mixture of storytelling tropes aside, the film is an engaging and occasionally electrifying dose of unrestrained sleazy pulp fiction. Does it mean anything much beyond its lurid surface? Not really. But one thing's for sure, you're not going to look at a bucket of fried chicken the same way again.

Reviewed on: 18 Jun 2012
Share this with others on...
Life-insurance crime thriller.
Amazon link

Read more Killer Joe reviews:

Keith Hennessey Brown ***1/2

Festivals:

EIFF 2012

Search database: