Killer Joe is a film that flirts with extreme brilliance and easily exceeds excellence. It’s smart, witty, and easy to watch, while holding you firmly in its grip.
The film is about the “Smith” family. Let’s meet them:
There’s the son, “Chris” (Emile Hirsch) who has been tossed out by his mother and needs to crash at his father’s house.
There’s the daughter, “Dottie” (Juno Temple) who seems a bit “touched” as they might say in Texas, where Killer Joe is set.
There’s the patriarch, “Ansel” (Thomas Haden Church), who is either clueless or oblivious, and his new wife, “Sharla” (Gina Gershon).
The three live in the trailer where Chris shows up as the movie opens. Seems he has been booted out of his mother’s home on a rainy night. Everyone is sure that Chris hit her, but he denies this repeatedly until he finally admits that he did throw her against the wall.
With good reason. Seems his mother sold two ounces of cocaine that he’d had stashed and kept the money for herself. Now he’s in serious trouble as he owes $6,000 to a nasty sort named “Digger Soames” and has no way to pay it back. But he does have an idea and he brings his father in on the scheme. It seems that according to his mother’s boyfriend Rex that she has a $50,000 life insurance policy and Dottie is the beneficiary. So if they could kill her, they could split the money between the three of them. Or as Ansel insists, the four of them, since Sharla deserves a share. Chris also knows that there is a police detective known as “Killer Joe” (Matthew McConaughey) who kills people for money. His fee is $20,000, but Chris is sure that they can talk him into doing the murder on spec and then reimbursing him from the insurance proceeds.
Two problems with this scheme pop up.
One is that the fee is $25,000. So if you’re good with numbers and you do the math, Chris will only be left with $6,250 by the time the insurance comes in, and the ‘vig’ on what he owes will grow beyond that by then. The other is that Joe doesn’t work on spec. You pay cash in advance or there is no deal. Fortunately for Chris and Ansel, Joe has seen Dottie and is willing to accept her as a “retainer” until he’s paid. Chris is against the idea, but agrees in order to dig himself out of this hole.
To delve into the rest of the story would be to spoil the excellent story woven together by playwright Tracy Letts, who adapted his own stage play. The twists and turns can be followed, but you have to pay attention and not be distracted by the biting wit of his dialogue. There are a number of well-placed laughs in this very dark film. The film’s brilliant conclusion is well worth the wait and I promise, you’ll never look at a chicken drumstick the same way ever again.
The producers tried to appeal the MPAA’s NC-17 rating, but there was little chance of that happening. This movie earns its rating within the first three minutes or so when “Sharla” answers the door of the trailer wearing nothing below the waist. There is violence, and plenty of exposed flesh. There is also high-quality filmmaking and Caleb Deschanel’s deft touch behind the camera is evident on screen. Director William Friedkin keeps his audience very interested in what happens to all of the key players in this black drama.
The entire cast is terrific, but the stand-out performances are from McConaughey as “Joe” and Temple as “Dottie”. McConaughey plays Joe with a quiet, understated tone that makes it clear this is a killer who is quite probably too tightly wrapped in some way, but we don’t get to see how until the final sequence begins. Only then does he allow us a peek behind the veneer of soft control he maintained throughout. Temple’s “Dottie” is aware of things no one else wants or chooses to see, or perhaps they aren’t real outside of her imagination. But she makes the audience understand very clearly that they are real to her. Thomas Haden Church always delivers a fine performance and this is no exception. There were moments when it seemed to me that Emile Hirsch was trying to channel the more talented Leonardo DiCaprio, but I’m sure that was just some strange thing that only I saw.
This is a fine film, worthy of a much wider release and audience. Sadly, it will probably end up with neither, thanks to the well-deserved rating of NC-17.