Review: 'Killer Joe'

By: Heather Seebach

Well folks, this one is just about as "viewer discretion advised" as they come. Like the fucked-up offspring of Tennessee Williams and the Coen Brothers, Killer Joe will make you feel all kinds of dirty just by watching it. Only mildly marred by a predictable plot and some uneven acting, William Friedkin's NC-17 dramedy boasts an intense titular performance, one wicked sense of humor, and moments that will remain burned in your brain long after the credits roll.

Based on Tracy Letts' stage play of the same name, Killer Joe is about a dysfunctional redneck family who gets mixed up with a dangerous hit man. Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a drug dealer who owes a lot of money to the wrong people. With help from his loser father (Thomas Haden Church) and trashy step-mother (Gina Gershon), he plots to have his estranged mother killed and collect on her life insurance policy. He hires Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a crooked cop who moonlights as a killer, but Chris gets more than he bargained for when Joe takes a shine to his sweet little sister, Dottie (Juno Temple).

Right from the start, this film has a pervasive feeling of grime. From the Texas trailer-park setting to the morally bankrupt characters, everything about this movie just feels filthy. True to its NC-17 rating, Joe does not shy away from full-front nudity and brutal violence, and it is all bound together by a nasty sense of humor. The viewer cannot help but laugh at the ridiculous extent to which these horrible characters will go to justify their depravity. The film definitely veers into over-the-top territory on multiple occasions, but that is just the tone of Joe. If you are willing or inclined to laugh at what makes you uncomfortable, this is the film for you.

As the titular hit man, McConaughey steals this movie with what is likely the strongest performance of his career. Not all of Matthew's films have been soft romantic comedies, but this is still far darker than any of his previous roles. If this character played in a rom-com opposite Kate Hudson, it would be a very different film indeed. Joe is intense, bold, terrifying, and often hilarious. You are never entirely sure what this guy is after - is he a soulless monster, or the killer with a heart of gold? Watching McConaughey, the word "Oscar" naturally dances around in your head, though the Academy rarely recognizes performances of this ilk (*cough*Drive*cough*). 

The other scene-stealer of the film is Gina Gershon, who is not afraid to bare all - in more ways than one. She and McConaughey do not share many scenes, but when they do, it will leave you needing a shower (and not the cold variety). Temple also turns in a bold performance as Dottie, the mentally un-well ingenue and source for most of the film's moral ambiguity. Hirsch and Church, on the other hand, are more uneven and over-the-top. Sometimes it almost seems intentional but it is unfortunately distracting, especially Church's usual wooden delivery.

The plot of Joe is relatively run-of-the-mill: murder, sex, betrayal, hit men. Nothing we have not already seen in Coen Brothers films. What sets it apart are the performances and Friedkin's giddy indulgence in scraping the bottom of the barrel. It is a rare film that will juxtaposition Clarence Carter's "Strokin'" with such nasty subject matter. Friedkin and screenwriter Tracy Letts encourage the audience to laugh or be aroused by things that are inherently wrong. Coming from the man who directed a 12-year-old violently penetrating herself with a crucifix forty years ago, anything goes here.

Undoubtedly, some people will accuse this film of misogyny, which is not true. In fact, the only decent human being in the whole film is female. Portraying violence against women and endorsing violence against women are very different things. If that statement confuses or angers you, avoid Killer Joe. But if you relish a film that makes you uncomfortable and encourages you to laugh about it, look no further.

 out of 5

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