Friday, August 24, 2012


What happens when the hit man you hire to murder your mother falls in love with your younger sister? That’s the major dramatic question of William Friedkin’s new film Killer Joe, opening in the Valley this weekend at Harkins Camelview. The answer isn’t pretty.

Chris (Emile Hirsch), a small-potatoes Texas drug dealer, lives with his mother. His slow-thinking father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) lives in a trailer park with his slatternly waitress wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) and Chris’ angelically pretty, otherworldly younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple). As the story begins, Chris, dangerously overdue to a loan shark, gets Ansel to agree to arranging the death of Chris and Dottie’s mother, to collect a life insurance policy. The idea is that, with Dottie as beneficiary, Ansel, Sharla, Chris and Dottie will be able to split it four ways—once they’ve paid the killer.

Said killer is Joe Cooper, a cop who commits the occasional homicide as a side business. Joe (Matthew McConaughey) almost calls off the deal when he learns that his prospective clients don’t have the money up front, but he’s gotten a good look at, and had a nice chat with, young Dottie, and he agrees to take the job if Ansel and Chris agree to “give” him Dottie “as a retainer.” Ansel and Chris agree to this outrage, and from there things all go downhill, with noir-style twists and turns culminating in a grueling—if also somewhat campy—scene of Grand Guignol humiliation that may change your relationship with fried chicken forever.

Killer Joe is based on an early play by Tracey Letts, the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winner for August: Osage County, and while Friedkin gooses the action around to different locations with some good jagged transitions, the basic theatricality of the material is unmistakable. There’s really nothing essential in this dialogue-driven piece that couldn’t have been managed well enough on one set, and seeing it performed live would have had an even more shocking impact.

It’s plenty shocking on film, though. Rated NC-17, Killer Joe isn’t for everybody. It’s an excellent showcase of ensemble acting, however, from Church’s hilariously pre-defeated line readings to Gershon’s lewd smirks to Temple’s sweet, guileless amorality. Hirsch’s role is tough; constantly in terror and/or rage and haunted by both pure and Freudian devotion to Dottie, he gets less of a chance to play for laughs than the others, but he’s still effective.

The star role, unquestionably, is McConaughey’s terrifying yet compelling Joe. Soft-spoken and polite, even gallant, with a clear, observant stare, Joe’s a lethal psychopath and a helpless fetishist, yet something about his formal manner makes him seem less chaotic and ruinous than Chris and Ansel, and it’s clear enough why Dottie’s disassociative innocence would appeal to him.

The attitude that Killer Joe dramatizes is one of the basic positions of noir: that Women Are Trouble. While the film doesn’t try to debunk this view, it also suggests that men are so stupid, crooked, brutal and perverted that they deserve that trouble.


  1. Good review M.V. McConaughey has never been slimier, Hirsch has never been louder, Haden Church has never been dumber, Temple has never been more innocent, and Gershon has never really shown us ALL of her like we see here. Altogether, they make a pretty out-standing ensemble that makes this film tick a whole lot more than I expected.

  2. Thanx for the kind words Dan--do you think that really was Gershon that we saw ALL of, or was it maybe a body double?