Desperate for dough, degenerate drug dealer Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) hatches a plan with his moronic father (Thomas Haden Church) and slutty stepmother, Sharla (Gina Gershon), to have his mother murdered and split the 50-grand insurance payout. Enter 'Killer' Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a smooth-talkin' local cop with a profitable sideline as a hitman. Nothing's that simple of course, and once Joe's lecherous eye lands on Chris' virginal sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), things go from bad to extremely worse for everyone.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Killer Joe is rude, crude, very violent and a lot of fun. It’s also nasty. Frankly, some of the best bits here are, well, the 'dirty’ parts. Line for line this film, based on a hit play by Tracy Letts, is hilarious and savage.
This is one picture that is not even on nodding terms with good taste.
Early on, one character, after catching a close up view of a woman’s naked crotch, a sight he assures all he would rather not have seen, says: 'What are you doing"¦ Do you want someone to shake hands with it?" (By the way, I’ve bowdlerised the line somewhat for publication. This is one picture that is not even on nodding terms with good taste).
It starts off with a wicked intensity and ends in an orgy of sadistic bloody malice with one character forcing another to perform a certain sexual act on a 'southern-fried’ chicken drum stick. In between there’s beatings, a lot of potty-mouthed chat, a seduction of a virgin and a homicide. It might have played like a bit of high-tone grindhouse, but it doesn’t, mostly because veteran director William Friedkin has found just the right sleazy tone that pushes all the right buttons. Or to put it another way, this isn’t just another post-modern movie gag, delivered with ironic alibis. At times it’s actually painful. It shocks. Not because it’s gross – though it is that – but because here, life itself seems to mean next to nothing.
The plot of Killer Joe is a black joke about moral relativism. In it a 'trailer trash family’ hires a professional killer to murder a loved one for the insurance pay-off.
Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is in debt to a crime boss. He presents a scheme to his old man Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church), a mechanic who lives with his second wife Sharla, in a fleapit trailer in a Texas burg that looks like the middle of the middle of nowhere. Chris needs Ansel’s cash to hire a guy called Killer Joe to murder Chris’ mother Adele. If the plan works, Chris’ sister Dottie (Juno Temple) inherits the $50,000 pay-off. Everybody, argues Chris, is entitled to their cut.
Chris needs the approval of all and he gets it; and this drastic decision is undertaken with an aura of dazed boredom. It’s like they’re contracting a paint job.
Just about everybody here talks uneasily about right and wrong, but it’s impossible to take they’re angst seriously – and I don’t think we’re meant to – since none of the characters seem to have a clue, let alone scruples. Hungry for instant gratification and never quite getting it they live in a wash of neon, a world of monster-truck extravaganzas, strip-joints, barking dogs, cable-TV and bar fridges full of beer. They’re not so much brain-dead; merely numb. It’s only the killer, Joe Cooper, a Dallas cop who performs hits on the side for $25,000 a piece, who seems to have a sense of right and wrong. Matthew McConaughy plays him with a calm grace that’s chilling and funny in equal parts.
Chris’ plan hits complications early. He can’t raise Joe’s advance. Angered and frustrated Joe suggests a solution. Dottie, a teenage virgin, will deliver sexual favours to Joe as a 'retainer’. Ansel willingly agrees to the deal but Chris is fraught – but one can’t really tell if he’s disgusted with his complicity in his sister’s humiliation or he’s just embarrassed by his own! Things get really messy when Dottie, once seduced, starts to actually fall for the gentlemanly Joe.
I haven’t seen Letts’ play, which is nearly 20 years old now, but I understand it’s as frantic, claustrophobic, bitter and cynical as Friedkin’s movie.
Using digital capture and a script that is three-fifths interiors – mainly the Smith home – Friedkin and Letts have resisted the temptation to open out the play too much and the director piles on the technique. The sound design is an abrasive tattoo of thumps and grinds, mixed with some Texas twang; the camera distorts space – McConaughey looks like some elegant cowboy giant throughout – and the editing is a nervy rattle of jump cuts, and smash reveals.
Still, the emphasis is on gut emotion and that means the performances take on that burden and they’re tremendously exciting; Haden Church brings a pathos to his role that’s surprising, Gershon is the best she’s been in years, and Temple and Hirsch are both strong in tricky roles that could play straight into hick clichés. They don’t mostly because Friedkin has guided them to portraits that suggest a dysfunction that runs deeper than boredom and self-hatred.
Aside from Letts scathing one-liners the best reason to see the film is McConaughey. His Killer Joe is a quite brilliant variation on cool villainy. His quietly spoken perfect diction, his slow moving precision and even gaze is nothing less than a study in the dynamics of power. It’s scary not because, like Tarantino’s bad guys, he’s 'cool’"¦he’s frightening because he is quite mad.