In Killer Joe, a white trash, trailer-bound family of rednecks cook up a plan to kill one of their own and cash in on the life insurance. It’s Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) who gets the bright idea to execute his own mother and spilt her $50,000 life insurance policy three ways. Equal to the spilt is his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), and the benefactor of the policy, Chris’ younger sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). After Ansel’s feverent demands that his current wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon) get an even split, Chris and his pops go about hiring notorious Killer Joe to do the deed.
Now, you’ll have to forgive me if Killer Joe sounds pretty standard. I’m dumbing the plot down on purpose, because at the heart of this unique beast is a hysterically depraved, balls nuts thriller that will shock as much as it will provoke laughter. Everything done in the film is done with perfect cadence and matter of factness. The way the characters walk and talk and act (and, most importantly, react), fits seamlessly into the world director William Friedkin and his screenwriter, Tracy Letts, creates.
Let me start by addressing the film’s NC-17 rating. American readers know all too well the stigma that rating brings to movies. It’s typically reserved for films that contain graphic sex for the sake of containing graphic sex. But, if Shame proved anything, it’s that a superbly unique American story can be told under the artistic freedom of the NC-17 rating. In short, Killer Joe earns its rating, but it has a ball doing it.
McConaughey, who is on the roll of his career, embodies the quiet, calculating Joe with utter conviction and amusing remorselessness. He’s a man of principle, for better or worse. You may not always know where Joe is headed (or why), but if you give in to the film fully, you’re bound to enjoy being in his company. For very very different reasons, McConaughey is equally good here as he was in Soderbergh’s Magic Mike. The man simply can’t miss, and it is a blast to watch.
But, despite what the film’s marketing materials may indicate, the real stars of this movie are the Smith family. Hirsch plays a bumbling moron to perfection, while Gershon delivers a down to earth, sultry role in what has to be the best performance of her sorted career. Although Church and Temple, it must be said, are the real scene stealers here. Everything out of Church’s mouth is idiotic gold. He’s a guy who is well aware of how completely stupid he is, and Church hams it up to dutifully. Forget Sideways, this is the role of his career. Temple (best known as the molested girl in Atonement, and Anne Hathaway’s friend in The Dark Knight Rises) carries all of her scenes, fearlessly owning her innocent, wide-eyed Dottie without looking back. I’ve seen her act in movies before, but never like this. A star in the making.
Killer Joe is based on Letts’ play of the same name, and is the first film Friedkin has done since adapting Lett’s equally depraved play, Bug. The unusual pairing of these two talents was something I enjoyed wholeheartedly in Bug, but I was sadly one of the few. Their second outing is garnering far more positive attention, all of which is extremely justified.
Killer Joe is by far the most fun I’ve had at the movies so far this year, which is odd, given that so much fucked up shit happens in it. There’s no fun in spoiling the wickedness, but know that Killer Joe is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s depraved, certainly. But it damn well embraces it. And that, to me, is saying a whole hell of a lot. A-