Finding himself in considerable debt, Chris, a Texan drug dealer, decides the only solution is to murder his mother to collect the insurance money. Getting together with his father, the ex-husband of Chris' mother, they decide to hire Joe Cooper (a contract killer) who also happens to be a police detective. The plan is that the money will go to Chris' sister Dottie. However due to the size of the contract fee, Chris agrees that Joe can take Dottie as a retainer until the insurance comes through.
William Friedkin's Killer Joe proclaims itself as a "totally twisted, deep-fried Texas, redneck trailer park murder story," but to be fair, I'm not sure that is even an accurate summation. Prior to viewing the film, I saw it called everything from, "sick," to "wild," to "weird," to "creepy," to "subversive," to "crazy," to just plain awful, and the only one I can marginally agree with is "weird." This is one of the strangest releases of the year, but I believe "sick" is a huge exaggeration.
I too feel the NC-17 rating this film proudly bears is a bit much. If the film lacked a full frontal Gina Gershon and Matthew McConaughey, I'm sure it would've easily obtained a strong R-rating. The MPAA's bias for sexual content over violent content is wildly known and just the fact that they oversimplify the violence in this film to "a scene of brutality" had me laughing. The film includes some of the most hard-hitting scenes of combat that I've seen in any other film this year, and I'd absolutely love to know just what scene the MPAA was referring to in the first place.
The film centers around the family of twentysomething Chris Smith (played fantastically by Emile Hirsch, assuming the type of role he should continue to seek out), a lowlife drug dealer residing in a Texas trailer park, with his dim-witted father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), his annoying step-mother Sharla (Gina Gershon), and mentally disabled sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Chris has plunged himself into debt with another local dealer, and consults his father about his biological mother and her $50,000 insurance payoff that would be collected by Dottie if she were to die. Chris proposes the idea to hire "Killer" Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a sleazy cop who also works as an assassin, to kill his mother and receive a cut of the insurance money, with him, Ansel, and Sharla getting a good chunk of the profits. However, things become incredibly twisted when Killer Joe begins to fall in love with Dottie, and how the whole family begins on an even steeper downward spiral due to a colossal misunderstanding thanks to Chris.
Every character in the film is despicable in their own way, either by the shameful atrocities they commit or just because of the fact that their motivation is hopelessly self-centered and shockingly shallow and inept. Thankfully, all these subhuman characters are played efficiently by first-rate performers. Emile Hirsch gives a convincing, dignified performance, in possibly one of the most confident screen roles in his adult life. Juno Temple comes off of Dirty Girl, a wonderful coming of age drama, to embody a wildly different yet extremely interesting character, seemingly taken advantage of due to her intelligence or lack thereof. And Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon are consistently wonderful in their roles, especially during the climatic half when they appear to be tested as actors all together. But the award-winning performance here goes to McConaughey, who is three for three this year, with roles in Bernie (another film looking to brew the idea of "Texas noir") and Magic Mike buoying him to an actor of near first-rate level. McConaughey's early career was plagued by a number of questionable romantic comedies and the occasional goofy action picture or two, but this year, we've seen nothing but him assuming roles of great confidence, always possessing a firmly dignified slickness and swagger that sets him apart from other actors who have just started recognizing their potential. It would appear that McConaughey just woke up one day and realized that time was fleeting and his real acting career could begin. I never thought I'd say this, but I couldn't see the role of Killer Joe being inhabited by anyone more quirky, unsettling, or thrilling as McConaughey.
There's also something seriously notable about the tension director Friedkin (whose most known work would be the iconic game-changer, The Exorcist) erects during the entire course of Killer Joe. I began to notice it around twenty minutes in, when I felt that I never officially held a comfortable position in my seat, rearranging myself every few minutes. Then, during the scene where Chris is desperately trying to outrun two goons on choppers, taking backroads, alleyways, and literally anything that will get him off the track of the two bikers, I became restless and enthralled. Killer Joe provides us with warm Texas sun, and blends it elegantly with the raw thriller aspects found in a typical film noir picture. The entire climax, taking place in the trailer of the Smith family, is tense and unnerving. This is when I began to realize that this story had been a play prior to a film and that screenwriter Tracy Letts had adapted it so quaintly to film that the transformation was almost not noticeable (even if it would've been, it still wouldn't have been a thing to discourage). This is one of the first, if not the first, time I've watched a film that I didn't know was a play until later in the picture. The fact that this film confidently branches out so far past the idea of a stage-play to the point of being unrecognizable from its roots is a huge accomplishment all on its own.
I close with a forewarning that while I feel that the NC-17 rating Killer Joe received is somewhat questionable, I state with caution that this is a very violent picture, with several sequences of brutality that nearly channel the lines of sadistic depravity. Friedkin, however, is sure to capture it through a lens of style, similar to how Rob Zombie beautifully captured the horrifying deeds of the three despicable murderers in The Devil's Rejects. The film's charm is indescribable and its execution, fearless and zealous, making this one of the most surprising and impressive motion pictures of this year.
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Matthew McConaughey, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, and Juno Temple. Directed by: William Friedkin.
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