Killer Joe (United States, 2012)

August 09, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Killer Joe Poster

Killer Joe earns its NC-17 rating. A gleeful and unapologetic descent into delicious decadence, Killer Joe is proud of what it is and never tries to be something it isn't. A slick looking exploitation thriller from veteran director William Friedkin, Killer Joe could easily be seen as a black comedy. It holds nothing back. The violence is brutal and graphic. The sex is sometimes strangely erotic and even more frequently kinkily disturbing. And the nudity doesn't stop at T&A. Gina Gershon channels Julianne Moore from Short Cuts and Juno Temple leaves little to the imagination. This is Friedkin unbound, with the fetters of the studio system cut away. Killer Joe is a helluva fun trip, but one senses devotees of Merchant-Ivory may be displeased.

There's a lot of talent involved in this production. In addition to Friedkin, whose resume will always be highlighted by The French Connection and The Exorcist, there's cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, whose lensing gives this movie much of its tone and atmosphere. He knows just how to shoot the gore and nudity to avoid the sleaze factor. The cast is comprised of recognizable names (as opposed to the unknowns who often populate exploitation movies): established actors Matthew McConaughey, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon and Emile Hirsch, and up-and-coming starlet Juno Temple. Knowing who's involved makes the movie interesting before you see a single frame.

The story, which is based on a play by Tracy Letts, transpires mainly in a Texas trailer park. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) has come home to ask his father, Ansel (Haden Church), for $1000 to help clear a gambling debt. Ansel regretfully informs him that he has never possessed that much money in his life. That's okay, says Chris - he has a plan. His alcoholic mother (Ansel's ex-wife) recently took out a life insurance plan with Chris' sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), as the beneficiary. Dottie lives with Ansel and his new wife, Sharla (Gina Gerson). All they have to do is hire a hit man to eliminate Mom and they can split the proceeds. Chris even has candidate for the killer: Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a Texas police detective who does a little "contract work" on the side.

After Chris and Ansel contact Joe, they learn there's a problem: Joe demands his $25,000 fee up front. Promising him a cut of the insurance money won't work, but he is willing to work out a deal. He'll accept a deferred payment in return for a retainer. For the retainer, he isn't expecting money; he wants Dottie. And, having been charmed by him during their initial meeting, she is more than willing to go along with the deal. Ansel and Sharla endorse the idea. In fact, Ansel comments "it might do her some good." (He's worried because, at age 21, she's still a virgin.) Only Chris is reluctant and his dire financial predicament limits his options.

Killer Joe's penchant for depravity seemingly knows no bounds. It's the chicken leg scene that seals the deal and represents one of the most bizarre sequences one is likely to encounter in a movie theater these days. Without having to bend its content to achieve an R rating, Killer Joe can go places that "envelope pushing" movies like The Hangover can't come close to. And, while there's plenty of suspense to go along with the overdose of kink, there's also a lot of dark, bleak humor. This film is sometimes very funny. Some of the interaction between Joe and Ansel is brilliant, especially leading up to the aforementioned chicken leg scene.

With Magic Mike and Killer Joe both under his belt (something he removes in both films), this has been a banner year for Matthew McConaughey. His Joe represents the ultimate bad boy - suave and sexy yet potentially lethal. Thomas Haden Church has not been this funny since Sideways, and he provides the same kind of dry, low-key humor that worked so well in the earlier film. Gina Gershon doesn't have a lot to do - at least until the drumstick - but she makes a memorable first impression. Then there's Juno Temple. Her character is fascinating because of all the contradictions she embodies, although I'm forced to acknowledge she's more of a male fantasy than a fully fleshed out personality.

An appreciation of the conventions of the exploitation genre are mandatory for enjoying Killer Joe. This is made for a particular audience and anyone outside of it is likely to be shocked, offended, or some combination of both. All the actors believe in the project - they never would have done some of the things they do if that wasn't the case. The bloodsoaked, open-ended finale may leave some viewers feeling a little frustrated, but it works in its context. Killer Joe is probably great drive-in fare. The NC-17 may make it difficult to find at a multiplex, thereby making it a video choice for many. In a way, that's a shame, because Deschanel's cinematography deserves a big screen. But, if you're an exploitation fan, this is one not to miss.

Killer Joe (United States, 2012)

Director: William Friedkin
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon
Screenplay: Tracy Letts, based on his play
Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel
Music: Tyler Bates
U.S. Distributor: LD Entertainment
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2012-08-01
MPAA Rating: "NC-17" (Sexual Content, Nudity, Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1