Killer Joe is based on an off-Broadway play written by Tracy Letts in 1993 and Letts also wrote the screenplay for this film, which is directed by the legendary William Friedkin, who helmed the edgy classics The French Connection, The Exorcist and one of my all-time favorites, the little known film, Sorcerer (a movie which is not what the title implies, but is highly recommended.)
The story of Killer Joe is set in a mid-sized Texas town that is just big enough to have a strip club, a local drug kingpin and corrupt cops. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch – Speed from Speed Racer) is a small-time drug dealer who is in debt to the local gangsters, who are going to kill him if he doesn’t come up with the $6,000 he owes them.
Chris devises a plan to have his mother killed in order to collect on her $50,000 insurance policy and he brings his father (Thomas Haden Church), step-mother (Gina Gershon) and sister (Juno Temple) all in on the plan. They all agree that they, and the redneck-world at large, would be much better off without the Smith family matriarch.So Chris and his family hire smooth police detective Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to do the dirty work as Joe is known to have a side business dealing death as a hit-man. He requires his fee of $25,000 upfront and he is a stickler for details. The Smith family obviously will not have the money until the deed is done and they collect their insurance monies, so Joe waivers from his usual payment method and takes Chris’ sister Dottie as a retainer.
Dottie is one weird redneck chick with mental issues that are inferred as stemming from her mother trying to kill her as a child and other potential abuse that is never completely clear (maybe an incestuous relationship with her brother.) To be certain, the whole Smith family is bat-guano nuts in one way or another, but Joe takes a liking to Dottie and somehow the two seem to be good for each other and he practically lives with the Smiths in their trailer as he prepares to kill Dottie’s real mother.
You never see the former Mrs. Smith until she is already dead and is being disposed of so her death looks like an accident. And when the family goes to collect on the insurance they find that the woman’s last will has been changed and all of her money goes to her boyfriend – leaving the Smiths with nothing to pay the gangsters and nothing to pay Joe. You can’t imagine how ugly it gets from there, and you have probably never seen anything like it – at least I would hope not.
With Killer Joe, Matthew McConaughey proves that he has some excellent acting chops and is not just a pretty face meant for romantic comedies. His Joe Cooper is smooth, smart, eccentric and strange – and even though he’s a cold-hearted killer, he’s probably the most likable character in the film. I think this is a great role and good move for McConaughey and I’m really looking forward to see what he does next.There are amazing and bold performances by all of the primary actors in this film, but Gina Gershon as the step-mother, Sharla, is a stand-out. This actress has some sort of insane courage to pull off this role, which is so shocking I can’t even begin to describe it. I really hope that McConaughey and Gershon are remembered for these incredible acting achievements come award season.
Director Friedkin proves once again that he is a master of creating thrilling tension, in new and unusual ways, poking at if not bursting the edge of the envelope; and he, together with writer Letts (an Oklahoma native), certainly doesn’t do the Texas tourism department any favors with this film.
In case you haven’t guessed yet, Killer Joe is rated NC-17 for intense brutality, violence, sex and nudity. Oh, and did I mention that this movie is also extremely funny? It is about as dark of a comedy as you can get and although some sequences will have you uncomfortably squirming on the edge of your seat, a lot of this film is hilarious at the same time – but obviously not for everyone and please leave your kids at home.
If you are a fan of Tarantino-ish dialogue and Lynch-style small-town savagery and surrealism (a la Blue Velvet), then Killer Joe is a movie you are going to love. If you are squeamish when it comes to violence, nudity or Texans – then you might want to avoid this one.