Reviewer's Rating: ★★1/2
A mean, ugly crime story set in the underbelly of Dallas, Texas, Killer Joe stars Matthew McConaughey as its coolly unemotional title character.
Killer Joe Cooper is a Texas lawman who plays by his own unwritten rules. A detective who looks slick in his black cowboy hat, black leather jacket, clean white shirt and regimental cop sunglasses, Joe is nothing if not professional — especially regarding his illegal sideline.
Joe is a freelance killer.
Meanwhile, 22-year-old Chris (Emile Hirsch) is in a boatload of trouble. To begin with, he’s dumb enough to still be living with his no-account mother. And now she’s gone and stolen a stash of cocaine from him.
The pickup-truck riding drug lord who’s supposed to make a lot of money from the sale of the stolen cocaine wants his money. He doesn’t care how Chris gets it. So, after Chris hears about Joe, he sees a way out of two bad situations at once.
Killer Joe is the latest film from William Friedkin, the director of a pair of American movie classics: 1971’s The French Connection and 1973’s The Exorcist. Killer Joe has much in common with Friedkin’s 2006 film, Bug, an ugly, literally skin-crawling episode of sickness and horror.
But that’s not to say the director hasn’t made Killer Joe a well-crafted project. McConaughey’s performance, too, is an intensely wry showcase of economy. But Friedkin and McConaughey’s talents may be wasted on Killer Joe’s low-rent depravity and unbridled brutality.
The movie does have borderline magical realism qualities. The magic resides in Chris’ little sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). A strange child-woman, Dottie sleepwalks in the rain. She also knows things. If the phone rings, for instance, she needn’t pick up the receiver to know who’s calling.
“Your eyes hurt,” Dottie tells Joe during one of his increasingly frequent visits.
Dottie, her dimwitted father, Ansel Smith (Thomas Haden Church), and Dottie’s stepmother, Sharla Smith (Gina Gershon), are a family of trailer-park residents. Much of the New Orleans-shot film, based on the play by Tracy Letts and produced from his screenplay, takes place in the trailer. Letts also wrote the play and screenplay for the similarly set-bound Bug.
Dottie and Chris’ dad being so stupid, it’s almost surprising that he has lived as long as he has. Their stepmom seems smarter, but why would an attractive woman such as she want to be married to Ansel?
A movie containing extreme, bloody violence and much nudity, Killer Joe earns its NC-17 rating. It may not haved earned the many laudatory reviews critics have awarded it. Maybe Friedkin’s lingering status as a great American director swayed them.
As a meticulously assembled mood piece that periodically bursts with psychotic bloodshed, though, Killer Joe, like a multi-vehicle highway wreck, works as an attention-holding piece of cinematic cruelty.