William Friedkin is the director responsible for one of my favourite 70s films, The French Connection, and the film that made me sleep with the lights on for three weeks, The Exorcist. Killer Joe falls somewhere between the brilliance of the first and the evil of the second, and although it’s not one of Friedkin’s best films, it’s still thoroughly enjoyable.
Emile Hirsch plays Chris, a wannabe drug dealer who has managed to get into debt to the tune of thousands of dollars to some shady characters. He hatches a plan with his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) to have his mother killed and use the life insurance payout to solve their financial problems. Ansel divorced his wife years ago and she is an alcoholic who is a bad mother, so the entire family soon get on board with the plan. They hire Detective Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to commit the murder but when Cooper finds out that they don’t have the contract fee upfront, he suggests that he gets a retainer in the form of Chris’ nubile sister Dottie (Juno Temple). This leads to rivetingly uncomfortable scenes of Cooper seducing the young Dottie and eventually terrorising the entire family including Ansel’s girlfriend Sharla (Gina Gershon).
McConaughey plays against type in the film, perhaps wisely deducing that his days of playing the romcom leading man in shlock such as Failure to Launch and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past are numbered and he’d better show the film community his range. Cooper is a steely professional with an undercurrent of evil hidden underneath a veneer of politeness and insistence on good manners. McConaughey’s performance was worlds away from anything I’ve seen him in recently.
To my mind Juno Temple is the real star of the film, playing Dottie as an innocent ethereal girl desperate to get away from her dysfunctional family. She’s the trailer trash Blanche Dubois and one can understand Cooper’s fascination with her and desire to save her. In addition the cinematography by Caleb Deschanel is remarkable; in one particularly arresting shot McConaughey’s face is in close-up framed by a doorway and he looks like this generation’s Paul Newman with his piercing blue eyes.
Killer Joe is an interesting film but graphically violent so anyone with a weak stomach may well be advised to approach it with caution. The violence doesn’t have the cartoonish qualities of a Tarantino film so at times it can be unrelenting, but it’s definitely worth seeing nonetheless.