Movie Review – Killer Joe (2011)

Killer Joe, 2011.

Directed by William Friedkin.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon, Juno Temple and Thomas Haden Church.


In debt to a local gangster, a small-time drug dealer puts out a hit on his own mother to collect her life insurance, which attracts the interest of a policeman who moonlights as a contract killer.

Legendary filmmaker William Friedkin returns with his first film in six years with the gloriously violent and darkly comic Killer Joe. Whilst it doesn’t match up to his legendary work of The French Connection, Cruising, The Exorcist, or even his last effort Bug, it is certainly one of the year’s most interesting and captivating films, and easily the most controversial.

Based on the stage play by Tracy Letts, who gave Friedkin the material for one of his best films in Bug, Killer Joe is set mostly inside a mobile home in Dallas, Texas and focuses on the plot to kill a mother by her son in order to get her life insurance and pay off a debt to a local gangster. The plot may sound familiar but the action certainly is unique.

‘Killer Joe’ is the name given to Detective Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey in far and away his best screen performance to date), a cop who works as a hitman on the side. He is approached by a redneck, Chris (Emile Hirsch), who says he’ll pay Joe the requisite $25,000 to kill his mother, but hasn’t a penny to his name. Joe takes Chris’s sister, the simple and seemingly naive Dotty (Juno Temple) as a retainer until the money is paid in full. This is where the film gets really strange and very uncomfortable at times, yet Letts’ screenplay punctuates the nastiness with humour just at the right times.

Without the dark comic element, the film could not work and would never been seen in your local multiplex. The plot goes from dark to black to, well, dark black as each character turns against each other in a bid to walk away with the insurance money, but the standout scene is the much talked about ‘chicken drumstick’ scene where Joe violates a female character by… well, I’ll leave you to see the film to complete this image. It is truly unsettling and earned the film its NC-17 rating in the US – then again, Friedkin has never been a director to shy away from the controversial.

This is not classic Friedkin by any stretch of the imagination. His best films show the workings and process of the story and the films take on a documentary-real feel; men with inner torment, men fuelled by obsession, relationships forged from by evil, death, murder. Joe Cooper meets many of these, but the film itself lacks the drive and gritty reality that makes Friedkin’s best work indispensable. It is, however, better than many films released this year and will certainly warrant a second viewing; that, for a modern film, is praise indeed.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★

Rohan Morbey – follow me on Twitter.

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