A young man named Chris wakes up his divorced dad and tells him that his mom has lost a healthy amount of coke that he was supposed to sell; if he doesn’t get the money back for the lost coke, the mobsters that dealt it to him will surely wax his ass. His dad tells him, basically, that he’s shit out of luck, until Chris says that the mom has a 50 grand life insurance policy, of which his sister, Dottie, is the beneficiary. All they gotta do is kill the old broad, and even with a three-way split, Chris’ll be in the clear, but of course, they are morons, and they know they have to outsource the murder to get away with it. Enter Killer Joe: the Stetsoned, black-gloved big-city detective who moonlights as a 20-grand-a-hit murderer. As the two hapless criminals don’t have the money on hand, and only expect to get it once the deed is done, Joe offers to hold on to the emotionally immature Dottie as a retainer. Chris is hesitant, but he relents, and Joe begins an oddball courtship with Dottie until complications arise that severely alters the stakes, leaving Chris in a pit of desperation trying to protect Dottie, evade the dealers he’s in with, and keeping Killer Joe from murdering him and everyone in his family.
This film started out as a play, which comes across in the relatively low amount of speaking roles, locations, and major action scenes. That being said, the film never FEELS like a play; William Friedkin is a talented son of a bitch (if you haven’t seen The Exorcist, To Live and Die in L.A., and The Hunted, get on that), and he creates a visual palette that totally serves the Texas trailer-park setting, all dust and sweat and peeling paint. There’s an oddball family dynamic between Chris, Dottie, their dad, and his skanky wife that feels surprisingly genuine, with extremely urgent tensions and conflicts routinely getting brushed under the rug ’cause, well, no one’s really going anywhere anyway. I like that while we right away are given enough evidence to show the true nastiness of Killer Joe, we do not actually see a huge amount of his carnage firsthand. Part of this is Friedkin’s creative instincts, and part of it is Matthew McConaughey’s creepy, memorable work as Joe. McConaughey is miles away from his typical, hunky leading-man roles here, snake-like and confident while always exhibiting control through hostility and cruelty. Emile Hirsch, as his more youthful, desperate adversary, is as good as I’ve ever seen him, exhibiting emotional confusion and childish domineering towards his sister without once hinting at a self-awareness about his own crucial flaws. Even though it’s Chris who comes up with the idea to call Joe, it’s his laidback bumpkin of a dad who really seems to take a shine to him. Thomas Haden Church is the main comic relief of the film, with his tufts of facial hair and constantly befuddled expression, and every line of his seemed to elicit a laugh, particularly during the harrowing final act.
There is some serious violence on display here, all of it brutal, and a healthy amount of it against women. That, paired with the Texas setting, reminded me of The Killer Inside Me, a fantastic, but more serious movie from a couple of years ago that would’ve been hard to watch had it not been so damned excellent. This is more of a black comedy, and has a snide, cynical edge that allows us to laugh at these idiots/psychos and not as much empathize with their plight as much as sympathize for their deeply flawed personalities. Even Dottie, who, in lesser hands, would be idealized into a sort of inactive protagonist for the audience, comes off as a simple-minded enigma, a victim who’s just as innocent as she is just kinda stupid; Juno Temple walks a fine line in her fragile performance, and does so successfully. Haden Church and Gina Gershon are hilarious as her dad and stepmom, respectively, and while Haden Church gets the big laughs, Gershon creates a likable, colorful figure out of what could’ve been a crude stereotype. By the end, the lead characters are locked into an intense struggle to settle all the loose ends, and the tension, performances, and mise en scene are pitch-perfect. The film ends on a particularly ambiguous note; this could very easily make or break the film for you, but I thought it was fan-freaking-tastic, a wonderfully sharp wrap-up to the nihilistic, grungy country mess that preceded it.
Highly Recommended to fans of movies that explore the violent underbelly of rural Texas (i.e. The Devil Inside Me), director William Friedkin, or of the cast, all of whom do excellent work, especially McConaughey and Haden Church. Even though it is not for everybody, I’m glad this got a pretty major push for an indie release, with a forceful TV ad campaign and talk show appearances for all the players, and I hope that it continues to find an audience beyond the arthouse.
Rated NC-17 for a couple of vaginas.