Film Review: Killer Joe

Review By: Gordon K. Smith

A movie that does for fried chicken what THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS did for butter, KILLER JOE is a sick-and-twisted, pitch-black comedy set mostly in a trailer park in the Dallas boonies (but not filmed there – more about that later). The screenplay by actor/ playwright Tracy Letts, adapting his 1998 off-Broadway play, concerns the ultimate redneck trailer-trash family, appropriately named Smith – dimwit dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church),
second wife Sharla (Gina Gershon), dope-pushing son Chris (Emile Hirsch) and hot-but- virginal daughter Dottie (Juno Temple, daughter of director Julian Temple, and you’d never guess she was a Brit). Thousands in debt to a local hoodlum, Chris hatches a scheme with Ansel: bump off mom (Ansel’s first wife) for the insurance money she’s leaving to Dottie.

Since they clearly lack a brain between them, father and son seek the services of a professional, one Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a rogue Dallas detective who moonlights as a hitman. When Killer Joe realizes he won’t get the down payment until they collect, he demands the daughter as a retainer. More than a hint of incestuous longing
between Chris and Dottie is just one of the complications. Think “My Name is Earl” on acid.
Really bad acid.

KILLER JOE is directed by William Friedkin; it’s his most disturbing and significant film
in 25 years, and the director of THE EXORCIST still knows how to deliver shocks. Those
include closeup crotch shots, ugly in-your-face violence, and a prolonged torture/humiliation
scene that might just redefine iconic Southern junk food. His last film was another intense,
over-the-top adaptation of a Letts psychodrama, BUG, but even that didn’t have the
grotesque deadpan laughs seen here. Not for nothing is this film rated NC-17, still a pretty
rare occurrence in mainstream American films.

Friedkin gets fine performances here too. McConaughey has said he wanted to get
away from his nice guy rom-com image, and he gets about 180 degrees away from it here.
He’s perfectly cast, and his performance in the lead is creepy, precise, and even surprising.
One of KILLER JOE’s themes is how a powerful personality can completely manipulate and
control weaker ones, psychologically and physically (with the likely political insinuations).
McConaughey sells that particularly in two prolonged real-time sequences – first, Joe’s “first
date” seduction of Dottie, and the film’s riveting final fifteen minutes, which had my preview
audience alternately groaning and tittering nervously, gasping, and finally sitting in stunned
silence.

Also well cast is Church, another real Texan, who is hysterical as the ineffectual
patriarch who seems to take perverse pleasure in Joe’s cruelty. After the screening I
attended, Church spoke about his role as Ansel and the filming in New Orleans, subbing for
Dallas – not only does humid New Orleans not look like Dallas, but you can’t walk into a
corner store in Dallas and bet on horse races, as happens in KILLER JOE. As Church tells
it, Friedkin did few actual takes, relying instead on long hours of intense rehearsals. But what
really raised my eyebrows was his revelation that the role of Sharla, which ultimately went to
Gershon, was one of the most sought-after by such A-list Hollywood actresses as Reese
Witherspoon. Really? Top Hollywood actresses were vying to do that nudity and endure
that nasty humiliation onscreen? What that says about the current state of good roles for
women is almost as disturbing as anything in KILLER JOE, not a good choice for a first date
movie.

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