Blackly comic, and oft-times just black, William Friedman’s Southern Gothic murder mystery (minus the mystery) Killer Joe, based on a play by Tracy Letts, is ostensibly in the mould of many a graphic crime thriller filled with double-dealing cops, idiot wannabe criminals, and alluring ladies. Michael Winterbottom’s 2010 Texan Gothic The Killer Inside Me springs to mind but whereas that movie maintains its dark edge untempered, Killer Joe’s humorous tone removes any burdensome gravitas it might otherwise collect allowing both the film and the players to glory in the lurid pulpiness of its story and overall genre.
Matthew McConaughey is magnetic in the title role of Joe: the creepily neurotic cop who moonlights as an assassin-for-hire. As a character Joe plays somewhat like Javier Bardem’s iconic Anton Chigurh from the Coens’ 2007 Oscar snagging No Country for Old Men with all his idiosyncrasies blending into a supremely confident sociopathic personal code of behaviour. Joe differs in that he is somewhat more aware of his level of neurosis and is able to leverage that into humour – even if he’s the only one smiling. As self-absorbed son, bungling brother, and ‘criminal mastermind’ Chris, Emile Hirsch (Lords of Dogtown, Milk) mixes a convincing cocktail of brotherly affection, mistaken superiority, and outwardly projected self-loathing into a trailer-trash, mess making foil against which most of the other characters can make a decent showing. The ever enjoyably unlikeable Thomas Haden Church (Sideways) plays Chris’ pathetic father Ansel with just the right amount of gormlessness; comprehending everything, only, several moments too late. Juno Temple (Kaboom, The Dark Knight Rises) continues to impress as enigmatic (and quite probably developmentally delayed) sister Dottie upon whom Joe fixes his sights. Rounding out the central ensemble is a noticeably ‘tarted up’ Gina Gershon (Face/Off, The Insider) as Ansel’s current wife Sharla who is given the full ‘trailer park’ treatment in terms of appearance and attitude.
Starting as he means to continue, Friedkin kicks off the film with Chris in the middle of a stormy night yelling and banging on the windows and doors of his father’s house to try and gain entrance. Upon the door finally opening he is confronted with the hirsute classiness of Sharla, and along with the ensuing scene inside the house, the director effectively sets the dysfunctional family dynamic and the brutally humorous tone of the film. Into this less than cosy collective saunters Joe, contracted to perform a service and impressing upon all his extreme, possibly unhinged, confidence and the slightly neurotic code of conduct with which he expects everyone to comply.
I should warn those of sensitive cinematic constitutions: Killer Joe gets down and dirty. Language, sexual misadventure, violence – the whole shebang. Although, it has to be said, one of the beatings within has to be the worst set of pulled punches and kicks I’ve seen committed to film in a production of this quality in a long time.
Friedkin’s film is ultimately middleweight fare despite its dark tenor, harking back to his 1985 crime thriller To Live and Die in L.A. but is a fun ride for those who enjoy their comedy dark and their thrillers with an edge.
R18 Sadistic violence, drug use, offensive language & sex scenes.
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell