Review – Killer Joe

Some directors mellow in their old age; not so William Friedkin, as his grisly and grimy take on Tracy Letts’ grand slice of southern gothic Guignol shows.

Killer Joe certainly isn't to everyone's tastes, but for those who enjoy their movies trashy it's finger lickin' good

Killer Joe certainly isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but for those who enjoy their movies trashy it’s finger lickin’ good

Friedkin’s controversy-baiting style has won him an army of devotees and led to a back catalogue that many filmmakers would sell their soul for. The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) have rightly earned their place in cinema’s Valhalla, while pictures like Sorcerer (1977), Cruising (1980) and To Live And Die In LA (1985) may be lesser known, but are equally absorbing.

He made a welcome return to horror in his disturbing 2007 adaptation of Letts’ suffocating play Bug and collaborated again with the celebrated playwright four years later for what, according to the poster, is “a totally twisted deep fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story”.

Dumb Chris (Emile Hirsch) makes a play too far in Killer Joe

Dumb Chris (Emile Hirsch) makes a play too far in Killer Joe

The film centres around the Smith clan, a less-than-functional trailer trash brood who make the family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look sweet in comparison. Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a drug dealer who’s got himself into debt with the wrong people and, with the help of his simple-minded dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), makes a pact with the devil in the shape of Mephistophelean hitman-cop Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to murder his mother and collect on the life insurance.

Dottie (Juno Temple) takes her retribution in Killer Joe

Dottie (Juno Temple) takes her retribution in Killer Joe

Chris is unable to provide a down-payment to the dark and mysterious Joe, who decides instead to take a retainer in the form of Chris’ childlike sister Dottie (Juno Temple) until the cash is forthcoming.

Friedkin has never been one to shy away from down and dirty filmmaking and is at his most gleefully scuzzy here in what’s effectively a good old-fashioned exploitation B-movie. There’s something of the 1980s here, especially in the montage of close-ups as we’re introduced to Joe, who’s such a badass even the chained-up psycho dog sat outside the family trailer goes quiet when he strolls past.

'Angel of death' Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) in Killer Joe

‘Angel of death’ Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) in Killer Joe

Furthermore, a pretty good clue of what to expect comes early on when the first sign we get of Chris’ loathsome stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) is of her naked from the waist down. Subtle it ain’t.

The film’s blackly comic tone adds fuel to the argument that Friedkin is mocking the characters; the only one who seems remotely redeemable is Dottie, although you’re left with the sneaking suspicion she knows more than she’s letting on.

Redneck Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and trailer trash wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) in Killer Joe

Redneck Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and trailer trash wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) in Killer Joe

Killer Joe has been likened to a fairytale, with Dottie as the princess looking for her Prince Charming and Joe the wolf at the door, yet no-one emerges from this particular tale with a happy ending. The Smiths’ murderous greed and back-stabbing comes back to bite them hard as the evil they’ve invited into their home arrives for its pound of flesh in the film’s closing scenes, most notoriously involving a fried chicken drumstick.

The film is held together by McConaughey’s shark-eyed turn as Joe, who glides around like some Stetson-wearing angel of death and remains unnervingly calm until his thirst for violence takes over.

Killer Joe certainly isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but for those who enjoy their movies trashy it’s finger lickin’ good.

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37 comments

  1. theipc · February 28, 2014

    I LOVED this movie!! Excellent work!!

  2. le0pard13 · February 28, 2014

    A balls-to-the-walls bit of filmmaking by Friedkin. I saw this first-run in a theater mixed with young and old alike. There were gasps and laughter in the hall (mine included). Entertaining as hell, as well as jaw-dropping. McConaughey channeling Robert Mitchum in a performance that should have garnered actor nods (but one you know the vaunted Academy wouldn’t have the nerve to even mention). Fine review.

    • Three Rows Back · February 28, 2014

      I bet there were a few gasps and chuckles during the chicken scene! That’s a good point about Mitchum. I can see Cape Fear and Night of the Hunter in it. Thanks very much my friend.

  3. Joseph@thecinemamonster · February 28, 2014

    Lol, “finger-licking good” nice reference ;). This movie is alright, McConaughey definitely steals the show, and I’m also a huge fan of Hirsch, so I was pleased to see him here. Excellent post :).

    • Three Rows Back · February 28, 2014

      I liked it! Thanks Joseph. McConaughey is just The Man at the moment.

  4. jjames36 · February 28, 2014

    I like McConaughey. A ton.

    The movie. Not so much. Guess I’m one of the folks for whose tastes this isn’t. 🙂

  5. CMrok93 · February 28, 2014

    This movie’s crazy, but in a good way. Also, it proves to be McConaughey’s best performance to-date. Screw you, Dallas Buyers Club! Good review.

    • Three Rows Back · February 28, 2014

      Ha ha. It could well be Dan. He does quiet evil really well.

  6. Wendell · February 28, 2014

    I love this movie, it’s just bonkers right from the start. Count me as another who thinks this is his McConaughey’s best performance (but I haven’t seen DBC, yet). I think it’s Gershon’s best work, too.

    • Three Rows Back · March 1, 2014

      Bonkers is about as apt a word as you can use I think! I want the McConaissance to go on forever.

  7. mikeyb @ screenkicker · February 28, 2014

    Ive been meaning to watch this as it seems weird enough for my tastes. Also I’m a fan of Friedkin especially ‘To live and die in L.A’. great review mate

    • Three Rows Back · March 1, 2014

      If you’re a Friedkin fan you’ll love this. Thanks for the kind words buddy.

  8. Dan · March 1, 2014

    I was really impressed with this. I didn’t know Friedkin’s passions still burned so fiercely but they clearly do. And here’s another example of Matthew McConaughey’s recent strength and diversity as an actor – terrific stuff! This one surprised me A LOT – but in a good way!

    • Three Rows Back · March 1, 2014

      It’s a bunch of fun no doubt about that. It’s totally unapologetic which is what I love about both the film and Friedkin as a director. As for McConaughey, well, the guy is absolutely on fire at the moment.

      • Dan · March 2, 2014

        Very true. There’s a few films from his past that I really like – Frailty and EdTv spring to mind but his recent output has been incredible.

  9. Lights Camera Reaction · March 1, 2014

    Killer Joe may be uncomfortable to watch at times, but it’s worth it. A brave, bold and intense film helped with a great cast, and a career turn for McConaughey. Glad you liked it!

    • Three Rows Back · March 1, 2014

      Absolutely right. You’ve gotta admire the fact that cast and director are willing to go the whole hog and not chicken (ahem) out.

  10. chris2508 · March 1, 2014

    Great review. Thanks for reminding me that I have to watch this film.

    • Three Rows Back · March 1, 2014

      You’re welcome! Hope you get chance to review it yourself.

  11. ruth · March 2, 2014

    Hi Mark! I’m not big on disturbing movies and this one sounds like it’s right up there so it’s a skip for me. Friedkin’s most famous work The Exorcist still traumatized me to this day, though from his interview I heard on NPR, he seems like a really nice, normal guy.

    • Three Rows Back · March 15, 2014

      Every time I hear Friedkin I have more respect for him. He’s the real deal as far as I’m concerned and Killer Joe cements that.

  12. Zoë · March 5, 2014

    This movie had an abundance of awkward in it! Great review!

    • Three Rows Back · March 5, 2014

      “An abundance of awkward”. I like that!

      • Zoë · March 5, 2014

        Hahahaha, I cringe when I see KFC sometimes hahaha!

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  14. Victor De Leon · March 6, 2014

    Can’t wait to see this movie. I’m ashamed that I’ve missed out on a Friedkin film. I loved “Bug.” Good job once again!

    • Three Rows Back · March 6, 2014

      Thanks Vic! If you love Bug I’d say it’s safe to say you’ll love this.

      • Victor De Leon · March 6, 2014

        Speaking of which, I just found my copy of BUG to watch this weekend, thanks to you!

      • Three Rows Back · March 7, 2014

        Ha ha. Glad to be of service!

  15. Tom · March 10, 2014

    Interesting review man, I have more reason to watch Killer Joe now since the McConaissance is now in full swing!!!! 😀 I’ve heard mixed things about this one, but you make it sound like quite a good time. It sounds kinda up my alley. And because i also didn’t know William Friedkin directed it, add it to the list of reasons why I’m about to check it out!

    • Three Rows Back · March 10, 2014

      He’s in fire mate. It’s the sort of movie you just need to give in to and let it take you for a down and dirty ride on Hillbilly Street! Check it out and come back to me when you have.

  16. jmartin1344 · March 13, 2014

    Great review sir – it’s one of the few McConaughey films I haven’t seen so I’ve been reading a little about it. It sounds like it’d be right up my alley, and I enjoyed reading your thoughts. I think I’m going to head out and rent it, despite never really being a fan of Emile Hirsch. Look forward to reading your blog!

    • Three Rows Back · March 14, 2014

      Thank you very much James. It’s down and dirty and wallows in it. I got a real kick out of it. I know what you mean by Hirsch, but he’s surrounded by enough quality to make him raise his game. Hope you like it!

  17. Mark Walker · March 13, 2014

    Great work here, Mark. I thought this was fantastic. Too grim and sleazy for some but that kinda stuff is right up my street.

    • Three Rows Back · March 14, 2014

      Same here Mark. I love me a bit of grungy grindhouse and this was just the ticket!

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