Directed by William Friedkin
Screenplay by Tracy Letts
Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church
How long is Killer Joe? 103 minutes.
What is Killer Joe rated? NC-17 for graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality.
William Friedkin’s Dark Crime Comedy
is Remarkably Funny, Entertaining
2012 will probably be seen as a banner year for Matthew McConaughey. He has followed up his decent performance in 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer with Richard Linklater’s quality based-on-a-true-story dark comedy Bernie, Steven Soderbergh’s well-reviewed Magic Mike (which, admittedly, I haven’t seen), and now William Friedkin’s terrific Killer Joe. Whether this marks a lasting change in his career trajectory remains to be seen, but it seems as though McConaughey is moving from the romantic lead/charming cad and returning to what initially made the Frailty star so memorable in Dazed and Confused: the scumbag with oily charisma.
And McConaughey, in probably the best role of his career, brings the creepiness full force in the incredibly funny dark comedy/southern Gothic horror Killer Joe. As the title character “Killer Joe” Cooper, he has a sliminess that calls to mind Harvey Keitel’s tour de force in Bad Lieutenant, particularly with a scene involving a fried chicken drumstick. However, unlike The Lieutenant, Cooper does not go on a journey of self discovery and personal doubt. He remains a self-involved, morally oblivious scumbag throughout the movie, and Friedkin wisely keeps him cold and calculating even at his most violent and reprehensible.
Based on a play by the film’s screenwriter Tracy Letts, Killer Joe is a character-driven movie where the crimes themselves are less important than the characters’ reactions to their situations; we don’t even see the “main” crime being committed. In Joe, drug dealer Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch, Savages) finds himself deep in debt after his girlfriend steals his cocaine. He enlists the aid of his trailer park father Ansel (a hilarious Thomas Haden Church, Sideways) and his younger sister Dottie (a compelling Juno Temple, The Dark Knight Rises) to hire Cooper, a police detective/professional killer, to assassinate their mother for her relatively paltry life insurance.
Because the Smiths cannot pay Cooper’s fee, he decides to take Dottie as a retainer. The scenes between the two, especially their first dinner together, are a fascinating blend of uncomfortable and sleaze. As the lecherous predator, Cooper controls but does not hide the menace lurking beneath his surface, while Dottie slowly accepts and plays into what her new, more adult, role entails. As expected, the scheme spirals out of control culminating in a chaotic dinner scene that might be one of this cinematic year’s best sequences.
Aside from McConaughey and Temple, the rest of the family does terrific work. Church has several genuinely laugh-out-loud lines throughout the film. Hirsch, an actor who has not lived up to the potential he showed in Into the Wild, brings an appropriate dirtiness and imbecility to Chris. Gina Gershon as Chris and Dottie’s stepmother Sharla shows a strength as she tries to gain control over the situation but finds herself no match for Cooper’s dominance.
The acting is bolstered by excellent writing and direction. Letts’ wry and subtle screenplay gives personalities to these people; there’s a pleasure to watching them and their interactions. If there is some condescension, it comes without detachment and because of what they are doing rather than who they are. Additionally, Cooper doesn’t feel brought into existence simply because the Smiths need him, but more like they’re co-stars in his own life. Along with keeping things grounded, Friedkin brings a terrific sense of pacing to the proceedings while not overplaying the comic elements.
Stupid and simple, the Smiths are in way over their head when they hire Cooper, but believably and understandably so. Lacking the madcapness and slapstick incompetence of the wrongerdoers in movies like Horrible Bosses and Very Bad Things, Killer Joe emerges as a much funnier and better movie than others in the “root for the bad guys” genre- a list that includes this year’s Savages, which also featured Emile Hirsch. Despite the smaller and more personal scale, Killer Joe possesses a lot of the bite, cleverness, darkness, and excitement lacking in everything but Benicio Del Toro’s performance in Oliver Stone’s summer drug dealer tale.
Unfortunately, the film’s NC-17 rating will be a hindrance for people getting to see it before it arrives on DVD. Yet even with its graphic violence and full-frontal nudity, it’s not any worse in content than most hard-R rated films. It’s a disappointing decision from the MPAA, but one that makes you respect William Friedkin and the studio’s choice not to make what would probably be very easy cuts to get Killer Joe down to an R rating. Currently playing in limited release, this movie deserves to be sought out.