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Killer Joe– Movie Review

Submitted by on July 31, 2012 – 9:51 amOne Comment

Maybe it’s because the last few years have supplied a bumper crop of movies about sociopathic Texas murders, but Killer Joe doesn’t live up to the others in the surprisingly bustling subgenre. William Friedkin‘s adaptation of Tracy Letts‘ play (and screenplay) has strong acting and some striking cinematography, but its bizarre sexuality and violence send it into crazy town.

Emile Hirsch plays Chris, a small-time trailer park drug dealer, who finds himself deep in debt to some serious men. He convinces his dad (Thomas Haden Church) to off Chris’ mom (dad’s ex-wife), and collect the life insurance money, which will go to Chris’ (mentally delayed?) sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). Along with stepmom Sharla (Gina Gershon), they hire corrupt cop Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to do the deed professionally. But when the family can’t pay in advance, Joe insists on having innocent Dottie as collateral.

The film begins with a dark lightning storm, and similarly gritty and gripping potential. It stays engaging as it focuses on the deep-friend Texas personalities and the twists and turns of a well-crafted crime drama- but veers of the tracks as it gets into the psychology of Joe and his relationship with Dottie, territory it doesn’t seem to have mapped out very clearly.

McConaughey is good as Joe, but not quite free enough to carry the movie as the titular murderer. He seems to want to play Joe two ways: as a reserved, steely professional, and a psycho-sexual time bomb. These aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but Killer Joe doesn’t really reconcile them, so I never understood exactly why Joe does what he does, and what drew him to Dottie out of all of the women in the world.

As Dottie, Temple does a fine job discovering the dirty world around her with fear and glee; but she had an uphill battle playing a woman who has to fulfill so many roles as the projection of the male characters. Similarly, Hirsch is convincingly desperate and cocky as Chris’ screw-ups drive much of the plot.

Gershon and Church, however, turn in truly raw and gripping performances. Church’s Ansel is honestly slow, making him funny, infuriating, compassionate, and cruel all at once, all heightened by his constant lazy intoxication. Gershon is brutal and deceptive as Sharla, and commits fully as she bears the brunt of the film’s perverse, violent excess.

About that excess- one particular scene, already infamous from Killer Joe‘s life as a stage play, coming all the way at the film’s end, really left me clueless. Again, the gaps in Joe’s psychology kept me thinking: why, why is he doing this? And the violence became so graphic, even campy, I wondered if the movie had intentionally become a grindhouse tribute for its final moments.

For a depiction of quirky Texas murder that wears it’s “black comedy” label much better, check out this year’s Bernie. And for another Texas-lawman-turned-killer, see also The Killer Inside Me. While it’s violence is similarly sexual and even misogynistic, The Killer Inside Me at least makes clear why ever bloody jab is necessary to the protagonist’s twisted plot. I wish I could say the same for Killer Joe.

Did you see Killer Joe? What did you think?

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