Killer Joe, 2011.
Directed by William Friedkin.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon and Juno Temple.
A young loser in urgent need of cash hires a contract killer to take out his mother in order to collect on the insurance.
Killer Joe is the best film I never want to see again.
Actually, that’s not quite true. I want to see Killer Joe again because it is one of the best films I have seen all year, due to its clever and very funny script, the fantastic performances of the cast, and really strong direction from acclaimed veteran film-maker William Friedkin (The Exorcist). A more accurate statement is that I don’t think I could sit through it again.
Killer Joe is an exploitation crime thriller, based on a play of the same name and set in a poor part of Texas, where it focuses on a family of red-neck trailer trash. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch; Into the Wild), a small-time drug dealer, is in trouble with big-time gangsters. He convinces his father, step-mother and sister to aid him in a get-rich-quick scheme: hire corrupt cop turned hired killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey; Magic Mike) to kill Chris’ mother, so the family can collect her lucrative life insurance. Unfortunately, this simple plan is hampered by their inability to pay Killer Joe’s fee, as well as Joe’s slowly emerging insanity.
As mentioned, the humour and plot of the film is very dark, as characters heartlessly plan the mother’s murder. It’s full of brutal imagery and violence, and some terribly dark concepts, such as incest and sex with minors. Humour is used to puncture what would otherwise be an incredibly bleak and oppressive movie, but does not relieve the slow building tension which leads to an explosively violent confrontation between Killer Joe and the rest of the family in the film’s climax.
A clear sign of Friedkin’s skilful direction and Tracy Letts’ great writing is how you are pulled into the film by the humour and characters, leaving you in a false sense of security, which is obliterated the moment Joe snaps and attacks the Smith family, focusing a lot of abuse on Gina Gershon’s character, Sharla. The last ten minutes of this film was a truly challenging film sequence, one which left me incredibly uncomfortable and almost compelled to walk out because of my discomfort. Gershon is on the other end of the infamous “fried chicken” scene that is creating much of the film’s controversy – overlooking the fact that Joe’s relationship with Dottie Smith (Chris’ sister, played brilliantly by Juno Temple; St Trinian’s), a character who is meant to twelve years old, is to me a worse crime in a conceptual sense.
This is an exploitation movie in the truest sense of the word. The first half of the film contains a great deal of female nudity (including several nude shots of Dottie, who, as I said, is meant to be twelve years old) and the latter half contains brutal violence which leaves its recipients covered in blood and gore, and is shot and recreated in an unflinching, unrelenting way.
As mentioned, the acting by all involved is phenomenal. McConaughey gives his best performance I have ever seen from him; his character is full of tension and control, until he unleashes his ferocious inner monster. He is a terrifying presence, moving from scene to scene like a wolf. Gershon and Hirsch ground the film with a sense of reality, while Thomas Haden Church (Sideways) also gives one of his best performances on film, as the understated passive Ansel. Where McConaughey is like a wolf, Church is like a bear: large, powerful, yet slow and laborious. Temple is a revelation as the innocent and virginal Dottie.
The acting is great, the visuals are strong, Friedkin has a clear style and strong ability to frame and light a scene, so why can’t I watch this film again?
Mainly because I feel the level of exploitation in this film is excessive; the pain and suffering exerted on the characters, especially on Sharla, feels cruel, and the eroticised shots of a naked Dottie is disturbing.
Maybe that’s the point: the characters are cruel and evil, so they must do horrible things and the visuals of the female characters are eroticised in order to discomfort the audience, but to what purpose? The film shows us that humans can do terrible, awful things to each other, but it doesn’t reveal anything deeper about the human condition.
It is one of the best films I have seen in a long time, but it feels like shallow exploitation and excessively cruel, and I don’t think I could watch it a second time, but I’m very glad I’ve watched it a first time.
Flickering Myth Rating - Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Luke Graham is a writer and graduate. If you enjoyed this review, follow him @LukeWGraham and check out his blog here.