Review: Killer Joe (2011)

Director: William Friedkin

****

There’s only so many times Matthew McConaughey could make lobotomized rom-coms with Kate Hudson before thinking, “I’m better than this.” A violent crime thriller sounds like a jump into the deep end, but if Hudson can prove herself in Michael Winterbottom’s unflinchingly nasty The Killer Inside Me, what’s to stop McConaughey’s move to the dark side?

William Friedkin is now in his late ‘70s, but his longevity has not blunted the raw edge he showed in the likes of The French Connection and The Exorcist. Boasting the trashiest of white-trash characters and a penchant for gallows humour that barely offsets the violence (both physical and mental) inflicted on that white trash, Killer Joe would probably make directors half Friedkin’s age flinch. McConaughey is the eponymous Joe Cooper, a Texas police detective with a neat sideline in contract killings. When Chris (Emile Hirsch) finds himself in danger over a drug debt, he and his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) decide to hire Joe to kill Ansel’s ex-wife (and Chris’ mother) to collect on her life insurance. In theory, this sounds foolproof, but Chris and Ansel are fools and the plan isn’t so proven in practice. Joe wants his payment in advance, but decides to take Chris’ sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as a bizarre form of retainer. Dottie is adorably simple; if she were any smarter she would have thought twice about blindly going along with her father and brother’s rather optimistic plan. However, her obedience probably spares some premature bloodshed; ignorance sometimes can be bliss.

Tracey Letts (who also wrote Friedkin’s underrated Bug) adapts his stageplay for the screen, and it’s a story that translates well. The violent nature of the story already renders it very cinematic. There’s plenty of dialogue to chew over, but the violence (or even the persistent possibility of violence) and Friedkin’s nimble direction keep the energy flowing. The atmosphere is thick with heat and threat, and neither the bloodshed nor the none-more-dark laughs (mostly at Ansel’s expense) provide catharsis or closure. The cast are excellent, but McConaughey (the chiseled rom-com star turned ac-tor) and Temple (the new indie girl on the block) have the most to prove, and they absolutely shine. His coiled, barely-veiled menace and her melancholy naïveté drive the action and ground Killer Joe, even when the bloodshed comes back to haunt the family. An encounter between Joe, Ansel’s wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) and a chicken drumstick would make even Colonel Sanders think twice about ordering KFC.

There’s little that’s nice about Killer Joe, especially not the characters nor their actions, but niceness isn’t Friedkin’s oeuvre. The evil in Killer Joe isn’t Pazuzu; it’s more banal and efficient. If you’re prepared for a little Southern-Fried murder (with extra blood, natch), Killer Joe might float your boat. You won’t like Joe Cooper, but you won’t be able to take your eyes off him.

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