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Killer Joe

2011 | 103 min | NC-17 | 1.85:1

Killer Joe


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Movie appeal

Dark humor93%



Theatrical release date

 27 July, 2012
 29 June, 2012

Country of origin

 United States

Box office




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Killer Joe Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, August 24, 2012

After his lackluster turn in the recent “Magic Mike,” it’s encouraging to watch star Matthew McConaughey dig his teeth into something positively evil like the character of Joe Cooper. A cop drenched in Texas swagger, Joe is a man you wouldn’t want to cross, yet he carries a seductive, strangely respectful aura about him that’s almost appealing. It’s a tremendously controlled and creepy performance from the actor, matching the intensity of director William Friedkin, who summons a humid atmosphere of desperation and humiliation for “Killer Joe,” a ripe, captivatingly repellent picture that challenges its cast with stark portrayals of stupidity and intimidation, roasting in the Dallas heat. It’s a punishing viewing experience, but a uniquely vile sit that rewards the brave with exemplary technical credits, a sure pace in the early going, and the sight of McConaughey reacquainting himself with excellence.

Deep in the heart of Texas, lowlife Chris (Emile Hirsch) is scrambling for money to pay off a debt to a gangster. Hearing about the exploits of Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas cop who moonlights as a hired killer, Chris looks to convince his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) that offing his mother for the insurance money would be a good idea. Agreeing on a plan, Ansel and Chris engage Joe without the ability to pay him up front for his services. Requiring a retainer, Joe asks for Chris’s sister Dottie (Juno Temple), a rattled young girl of deceptive awareness. While Chris is uneasy with the payment, he passes his sibling over, watching as Joe and Dottie commence a sexual relationship in their own troubled fashion. With Ansel’s cheating wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) also in on the plan, Joe finds his murderous routine disturbed by Chris’s idiocy, forcing the killer to confront the true intentions of those who’ve employed him.

Last seen on the screen in 2007’s middling “Bug,” Friedkin roars back to full strength with “Killer Joe,” once again reteaming with writer Tracy Letts, who adapts his own play for the screen. The duo commits in full to the rough tonality of the story, shaping a circle of paranoid lowlifes trapped in a trailer park, facing crippling monetary issues that bring them to unthinkable acts to help solve. It’s a familiar arrangement of beer-swilling creeps and cheating spouses, yet Letts scripts with a crisp understanding of desperation, illustrating Chris as a dimwit who comes to Joe with a foolproof plan for profit, yet remains utterly devoted to his special sister, complicating the dastardly arrangement. It’s a collection of working-class stiffs playing hastily with murder, spouting noxious dialogue while failing to outfox one another. Despite the film’s theatrical origins, Friedkin keeps the effort willingly cinematic, visiting unsavory locations while amplifying colors and sound effects (the sound of Joe’s lighter is akin to a gun cocking) to generate a screen world worthy of survey, offering gorgeous lighting from cinematographer Caleb Deschanel that isolates glistening menace with the precision of a samurai sword.

“Killer Joe” is NC-17, a rating I believe the film earns with its display of regressive sexual acts between Joe and Dottie, with the killer incorporating the girl’s history of abuse into his fantasies. There’s also plenty of blunt nudity to assist in the nonchalant attitude of the participants, who crowd into Ansel’s trailer to hash out their troubles, exposing themselves without concern. Additionally, plenty of violence is spread around to escalate Joe’s wrath, observing graphic beatings with fists and cans of pureed pumpkin that aren’t for the faint of heart. Friedkin doesn’t pull his punches here, keeping the audience sensitive to the corruption in play, with special attention to Joe, who’s such a reptilian creation, gradually revealing his madness throughout the movie until he finally pops in the third act.

Accepting its stagebound origins in the finale, “Killer Joe” closes with a static but unnerving show of sexual violence, using such an innocuous item as a piece of fried chicken to alter the tone of the feature from gleefully bizarre to severe in a manner of seconds. Thankfully, there’s an exceptional cast here able to manage the shift in aggression (Gershon is especially brave), bringing blood-chilling shock to what becomes essentially a filmed play during the climax. While Friedkin has a tendency to linger on huffing and broad panic, he’s earned his hysteria, guiding “Killer Joe” through some deplorable material, yet keeping the picture appreciable for its psychological study and visual expertise.

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Scott Martin
Director: William Friedkin

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