A film review by Craig J. Koban November 16, 2012


2012, NC-17, 103 mins.

Killer: Joe Matthew McConaughey / Chris Smith: Emile Hirsch / Dottie Smith: Juno Temple / Ansel: Thomas Haden Church / Sharla: Gina Gershon

Directed by William Friedkin / Written by Tracy Letts, based on his play.

KILLER JOE is a disgusting and morally repugnant film that will, at times, have viewers either watching it through their fingers or pathetically fleeing for the cinema exits.  It explores the most abhorrent traits of one particular classless and heartless family unit while simultaneously showcasing what has to be the single dirtiest cop in film history.   The merciless volatility and nihilism that permeates KILLER JOE is borderline unendurable at times; there are simply no real characters here that are truly likeable or even remotely worthy of our rooting interest. 

Yet, having said all of that, the film is undeniably made with an eerie precision and is faultlessly and - by a few brave souls, at least - thanklessly performed.  The 77-year-old Oscar winning William Friedkin – showing absolutely no reservations with tackling such thorny and divisive material – helms KILLER JOE with the same level of headstrong intrepidness and audacity that made his classic films like THE EXORCIST and THE FRENCH CONNECTION so compulsively enthralling.  He has a very tricky job with this trailer trash-noir/Southern Gothic tale, as the film works on two wavelengths: Firstly, it’s an ink black comedy and social commentary on one spectacularly dumb family and their grotesque transgressions.  Secondly, it’s a shocking, crude and graphically violent exploitation picture that highlights its appallingly uncivilized personas through all manners of both ineptitude and inhumanity to one another.   Who said good art has to be tasteful? 

The script for this very nasty little piece of business is by Tracy Letts (based on his play), whom has previously collaborated with Friedkin on BUG.  The aforementioned “spectacularly dumb family” in question is the Smiths, who live an impoverished and lowly existence in a dilapidated Texas trailer park.  All of them are dysfunctional to the point of needing psychiatric help.  Chris (Emile Hirsch) has a chronic gambling problem, so he has come back home in the opening of the film to ask his semi-estranged dad, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) for $1000 to help clear his debts.  Ansel’s new wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon) hates her step-son and implores Ansel to not give him any money, which Ansel agrees to, mostly because he simply does not have any.  



Chris takes it all in stride, because he has a sick plan to score some much needed dough for everyone: His alcoholic mother has a $50,000 life insurance policy that she has apparently left Chris’ younger sister, Dottie (Juno Temple) as the main beneficiary.  Chris believes that if they kill the mother then they will all eventually get the desired money.  They decide to hire a local Texas police detective named Joe (Matthew McConaughey) that secretly moonlights as a hired “contract” killer on the side.  There’s one problem, “Killer” Joe demands a $25,000 up-front payment for the job, which the Smiths obviously don’t have.  Joe proposes a cringe-inducing solution; since he can’t get money ahead of time for the job, he will gladly take a retainer, of sorts, in the form of sex with Dottie, whom he becomes creepily smitten with upon first meeting her.  Scandalously, the Smiths willfully agree to Joe’s request.  Hell, even Ansel says at one point that it might do Dottie “some good”, seeing as she’s still a virgin.   

This is just the beginning of the film’s laundry list of indignities, during which we initially see the sickeningly charming and falsely sincere Joe “take” his collateral in a scene that’s kind of nerve-jangling in its disturbing eroticism.  Scenes like this are made all the more unnerving for the way that Friedkin and his cinematographer, the great Caleb Deschanel (who has shot films as far reaching as ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER to THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST to THE BLACK STALLION) find a manner of envisioning most of the film with tight, dirty, drab, run-down, and poverty-laced interiors.  Shooting most of the film's confrontations and standoffs in the open world would have been a miscalculation, so by setting a majority of Joe’s meetings with the Smith indoors it gives the film an added level of claustrophobic menace and tension, akin to being trapped in a confined cell with a wild animal that can go crazy with the least provocation. 

The sadistic, sexually ravenous, and murder-happy Joe is a real piece of work, with his long menacing black coat and hat and an obsessive compulsion towards his firearms and lighter, which he dutifully carries all the time.  Aside from his look, Joe is psychological predator that uses reptilian charisma and a penetrating, dead-eyed stare to have his way with deflowering Dottie and then later shows how he can quickly morph to animalistic brutality with the drop of a hat.  I’m not sure how people will ever see Matthew McConaughey in the same light after seeing his haunting and tour de force work in KILLER JOE.  I’ve been hard on him for his many past romcom indiscretions, but he has shown me this year alone in a series of great performances – like his prosecutor role in BERNIE and his almost sinister aging stripper in MAGIC MIKE – that he is capable of being an actor of real power.  In KILLER JOE McConaughey sheds away any semblance of movie star vanity and ego in portraying his endlessly immoral sicko.  Not too many actors of his generation would go to the dark places he goes to here; it’s one of 2012’s most hypnotic performances.  

The side performers are universally great as well, especially Thomas Haden Chruch, who manages to make the utter uselessness and unethical nature of Ansel sort of perversely funny.  Juno Temple is a revelation playing her young woman that has not appeared to travel beyond early adolescence.  She’s an ethereal cipher in the film in the sense that you never understand whether she knows what’s transpiring around here or whether she’s cunningly ahead of everyone else.  And then there’s Gina Gershon, who's always authentic in playing her rednecked wife role with a toxic hostility towards just about everyone.  She’s front and center in the final’s appalling – yet unforgettably suspense-filled – climax where she is forced against her will to do something to a KFC chicken leg that may have all audience members swearing off of the food altogether.  Calling her performance brave would be an understatement. 

Those final 15 minutes – as revolting as they are, which more than give the film its infamous NC-17 rating – are unquestionably the most edgy and tense last few minutes in any film from this year, which shows Friedkin reveling in this ghastly horror show that is the Smith’s predicament with Joe.  The film is intensely vicious and brutal at times, which sometimes gets the better of the offbeat comedy that often comes before it.   I’m still not sure of what kind of audience KILLER JOE is designed for: It's perhaps too violent, too depressing, too trashy, and too emotionally traumatizing for most filmgoers to embrace and respect, so much so that I for one wanted to take a shower after screening it.  I can’t say directly that I enjoyed watching the film or enjoyed what I saw or enjoyed the pathetic and cruel human menagerie that occupied it.  Nonetheless, KILLER JOE is made with a slick and exemplary proficiency and self-assured nerve, proving that the wily ol' veteran that is Friedkin can still push the envelope with the gusto of a young and fearless filmmaker.  

And just when you thought you’ve seen McConaughey do everything in a film…guess again. 

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