Movie Review: “Killer Joe”
Looking at William Friedkin’s "Killer Joe," an adaptation of the play by Tracy Letts whose "Bug" Friedkin also turned into a movie. This one stars Matthew McConaughey as a cop and contract killer who gets angered by a family who is as stupid as they come.
William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe” gets my vote for the most unforgettable WTF movie of 2012. It wallows in the sheer depravity of its deliberately idiotic characters without apology, and it is one of the most darkly hilarious movies I have seen in some time. I’m not sure I have “enjoyed” a comedy this black since Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” and that was the WTF movie of 2009! It marks the second collaboration between Friedkin and playwright Tracy Letts whose play “Bug” Friedkin adapted into a movie back in 2006. With “Killer Joe,” neither is out to show the audience any mercy as they challenge them in a way most filmmakers don’t ever bother to these days (especially in the summertime).
The movie takes place in Texas and features some of the dumbest or (to be more polite) most dimwitted characters on the face of the earth. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is a drug dealer who is in debt to his suppliers by several thousand dollars, and his solution is to have someone murder his mother as she has a $50,000 insurance policy. His father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) shows only the slightest moral opposition to this plan as he divorced Chris’ mother a long time ago and has since gotten married to the conniving Sharla (Gina Gershon), and Chris already has one person in mind to carry out this cold-hearted assassination.
That person is Joe Copper (Matthew McConaughey), a police detective who works as a hired killer on the side. Now Joe demands an upfront payment of $25,000 for his services, but Chris and Ansel can only pay him after receiving the insurance payout. As a result, Joe ends up taking a retainer to make up for that: Ansel’s daughter and Chris’ sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Like with all crimes based on greed, all the careful preparation can’t keep these characters from falling into that nasty realm of disaster. But long before the movie’s end, you will agree that they all have earned the fate they ever so thoughtlessly brought on themselves.
If this seems like an unusual movie for Oscar winning director Friedkin to make, it shouldn’t. Friedkin’s movies, with the exception of “The Exorcist,” have never had characters that are deserving of redemption. “Killer Joe” will be seen by many as a bold motion picture of his, but his resume of work shows that he has never passed judgment on any of the characters that inhabit his movies. He is also a brilliant filmmaker in that he surrounds himself with a cast of actors who don’t easily judge the characters they play either.
McConaughey has been on a roll ever since he gave up making those dopey romantic comedies for movies like “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Magic Mike.” With “Killer Joe,” he ends up giving perhaps the bravest and boldest performance of his career to date as his character is as immoral as they get. We never learn why he decided to get into this line of work while being employed as an officer of the law, but it doesn’t matter in the end. McConaughey gives us a mesmerizing portrait of a character who is more than aware of how amoral he is, and he is not about to apologize for that.
The other actors like Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church deserve a lot of credit as they portray the dimwitted nature of the characters perfectly without just playing it for laughs. They play each character as being serious in what they say and what they do, and that allows the audience to laugh uncontrollably at certain moments because they almost won’t believe how badly they screw things up. Both Hirsch and Church are perfectly cast here as they invest their characters with a history that shows on their faces and which doesn’t always need to be made clear with words.
A special badge of courage however needs to go to Gina Gershon who plays Ansel’s current wife Sharla. It feels like it’s been a while since we have seen her in anything, and she is at her most unglamorous in “Killer Joe.” Her character thinks nothing of opening the front the front door without wearing anything from the waist down, and this is not to mention what McConaughey ends up making her do with a piece of fried chicken (I’ll let you witness that for yourself). Even as her character wears too much makeup to where her mascara runs down her face, making her look like a The Joker, Gershon gives a truly fearless performance as someone who thinks she’s better than the people around her. Of course, her character finds out in the worst way possible that she is not.
The one person however who really caught my eye was Juno Temple who portrays the youngest child of the Smith family, Dottie. You may remember Temple as Selina Kyle’s street smart friend from “The Dark Knight Rises,” and she makes Dottie a fascinating enigma. Her character is at times willfully innocent, seemingly naïve, but she actually becomes the only member of this trailer park family with any sort of intelligence. Temple is utterly beguiling in “Killer Joe,” and I look forward to seeing more of her in the future.
“Killer Joe” was already earning infamy before its release as the MPAA gave it the dreaded NC-17 rating which, at this point, it wears on its shoulder without apology. Did it earn that rating? Well, yes and no; this is certainly no movie to take your kids or impressionable teenagers to see. Then again, if “Killer Joe” were released by a major movie studio, it would have somehow gotten an R despite its content. Whatever you think this movie deserves the NC-17 rating or not, the hypocrisy of the MPAA remains maddening and never ending.
Friedkin has been leaving in the shadow of his most famous work for years as if no one would ever let him get past “The Exorcist,” “The French Connection” or even “Sorcerer.” The truth however is that he has not lost his talent in setting up scenes that have tremendous suspenseful impact. This is especially the case whenever McConaughey is onscreen because when he appears you know things are going to get really bad. Friedkin also is well served by his collaborators such as cinematographer Caleb Deschanel who finds a twisted beauty in such utter depravity, and composer Tyler Bates gives the movie’s most suspenseful and horrifying moments a strong atmospheric quality that makes the story all the more claustrophobic.
It’s hard to say where exactly “Killer Joe” will end up on William Friedkin’s long resume of work, but it is safe to say it is far more accomplished than other movies of his like “Deal of the Century,” “The Guardian” and “Jade.” With this film he gives willing audience members an experience that they will not easily forget, and he directs Matthew McConaughey to one of the best and most explosive performances of his career. Those in the mood for the most disturbing of black comedies should not pass “Killer Joe” up.
* * * ½ out of * * * *