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USA 2011
Directed by
William Friedkin
95 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Killer Joe

For the most part William Friedkin’s Killer Joe is a well-crafted Southern Gothic black comedy crime movie in the tradition of the Coen’s Blood Simple (1984) and John Dahl’s Red Rock West (1993). Greed, lust, murder and betrayal are packed into a story of trailer trash losers going nowhere real fast.

Set in West Dallas, Texas, 22-year-old drug dealer Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is $6,000 in debt to his supplier after his mother (whom we only see dead) steals his drug money. Threatened with a world of pain if he does not repay it in full Chris comes up with the plan to hire a hit-man, Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), to kill his mother and so collect $50,000 life insurance.  He convinces his shiftless father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), to join in the plan and his sister Dottie (Juno Temple) and his tarty step-mother Sharla (Gina Gershon) go along with it. The immediate problem is that after Chris loses the only money they had betting on a horse race they haven’t got the “retainer” Joe requires for his services. Joe however suggests that he will take Dottie (an unlikely virgin) until the insurance money is paid. The family agree but when it turns out that the beneficiary is not Chris but Rex, his mother’s boyfriend. Now not only does Chris have the drug dealer after him but Joe wants the $25,000 agreed to for the hit. 

Adapted from a play and scripted by Tracy Letts, author of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning play and outstanding 2014 film, August: Osage County) the depiction of this clueless family, is in its own dark way, wryly amusing. I am not familiar with what was Lett’s first play so I don’t know if it was Letts or Friedkin, who is known for his flair for action (in this respect he’s best-known for The French Connection  (1971) who decided to inflict on us the savage beating of Sharla by Joe who then forces her to fellate a fried drumstick, before sitting everyone down to a bizarre family dinner (August: Osage County would use a similar family dinner device to bring the family’s dysfunctionality to a head).

McConaughey is no Dennis Hopper (who played a psychotic killer in the first two films mentioned above) but he gives Joe a chilling disdain for the human detritus with whom he has to deal. In this respect Hirsch is perhaps a little too genial but Church, Gershon and Temple are effective.

The Joe-Dottie relationship is peculiar insofar as Joe seems genuinely smitten with her (and she reciprocates). But given his mental instability it is difficult to know if he is merely playing a game. This perhaps explains the film’s seemingly pointless hanging ending, though that is only a “perhaps”).
Killer Joe evidences a good deal of film-making flair although many will find its brutal denouement  distasteful, as much for its gratuitousness as in itself.




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