Directed by: William Friedkin Cast: Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Juno Temple, Matthew McConaughey Running Time: 1 hr 43 mins Rating: NC-17 Release Date: August 3, 2012 (Chicago)
PLOT: A father (Church) and his son (Hirsch) hire a killer (McConaughey) to murder an estranged family member in order to collect the insurance money.
WHO'S IT FOR?: Do you like your comedy dark? Okay, how about extra, extra crispy? And then kicked around in the mud, and then shoved in someone's mouth? That's Killer Joe.
- READ Nick's interview with playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts
- READ Jeff Bayer's SXSW review of "Killer Joe" (9/10)
If Killer Joe had some bigger wits about it you might be able to accuse the film of being a less enjoyable Coen Brothers movie. It's got the setting (Texas), the concept of a collapsing scheme that takes nearly everyone down with it, and the self-destructive melee of silly-looking folk that have made some of the duo's films rather "Coen-descending." Instead, director William Friedkin's new story tests audiences only like the uglier parts of a Coen movie, questioning the audience as to how much they can like these characters when their appearance and actions are so thoroughly ugly. The closest character you may come to liking is Ansel Smith, as played by Thomas Haden Church. But you'll only like him because he is so stupid, and he provides you with what this movie could do with more of — relief. A chain of events that gets way out of hand, Killer Joe becomes so bizarre that laughing seems like the best coping mechanism, and Church might be the only one who provides this.
Friedkin certainly does find humor for himself ("Strokin'" by Clarence Carter is heard twice, once during the credits) in the story's ugliness, though it's uncertain how he really feels for his characters. Does he like watching them? Does he only like them because he can make them squirm? Or maybe he likes these characters because they can make his audience squirm most of all?
That isn't to say that there aren't striking performances to be found in this moralistic crap shoot. McConaughey unleashes a jolting slither of pure evil with his hissing title character, using his Southern charm ("I wish I had a story about first dates or casseroles") in a way more disturbing than his terrible romantic comedies he is speedily distancing himself from. When Joe's psychopathic inclinations kick in by the third act, McConaughey does do a focused job of selling this nutcase who has come to "save" this family a la Clint Eastwood's possible devil in High Plains Drifter.
And yet, McConaughey isn't able to remove himself from his type, something that still holds him back from a great performance. As with his character named Dallas in Magic Mike, or his role as a Texan prosecutor in Bernie, McConaughey is a tall force chiseled from a cliff side. While his performance in Killer Joe has some serious cold power, make no mistake, Mt. McConaughey is still safely in Texas.
The film's boldest performance certainly comes from Gina Gershon. She submits herself to the movie's mind-screwing sequence, with physical and emotional intensity rarely seen from any other movie this year.
A dark descent into moral hell, the twisted experience of Killer Joe doesn't ask us to recognize humanity between characters, for there is none. Instead, working with scraps of likability in this presentation, we struggle to find humanity towards them ourselves.
FINAL SCORE: 5/10