Filled with disturbing, dimwitted yet sympathetic characters, Killer Joe chronicles a hired killing gone terribly wrong.
Set in Texas, Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is in debt after he assumes his mother stole his stash of cocaine from their trailer home. Deciding he’s finally had enough of her, he sets out to have her killed and split the insurance money, the beneficiary of which is his sister Dottie (Juno Temple). After convincing his simple minded father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) to go in on the plan, along with his new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon), they contact local hit man Joe Cooper, aka Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey).
But when has a hit ever gone well? Especially when those running the show either have their backs against the wall, like Chris, or are just easily convinced to go along with the ride, like Ansel. And so it goes that when they meet Joe, a local detective who murders on the side, they run into an issue with payment. Joe won’t go along with a promise from Chris to recoup a cut of the insurance money, he insists on payment upfront. Until he decides he’ll accept a retainer—Dottie.
While the film seems to focus mostly on Chris’ plight to settle his debts, and Joe’s transformation from mysterious to disturbing, it’s Dottie who’s the true center. From the beginning, she’s different from her family. A virgin at 20, with seemingly little or no life experience, Chris and the rest of her family act as protector for her. Despite his begrudged willingness to “give” her to Joe, she’s the perpetual baby of the family and is usually left out of their plans. But she’s also the wild card of the family. She’s the beneficiary of the money and she’s the payment, well retainer, for Joe. As the film eases on, she also let’s on that she’s more aware than her family realizes. But everything just gets more twisted while Joe acts as a big, black cloud over everyone.
Director William Friedkin, best known for 70s hits The French Connection and The Exorcist, creates the type of black comedy the Coen Brothers would concoct if their humor was dry to the bone. Developing laughs from the disturbing, the audience shouldn’t expect everything to go according to plan, but it’s also not the type of film to hinge on each plot development. Instead it follows the characters, who are just regular people dealing with a clearly unhinged man in Joe.
It’s been a great year for McConaughey so far, with an amusing turn in Richard Linklater’s Bernie, and he appears to be continuing his return to form with Killer Joe. But the rest of the main cast is similarly excellent. Church is superb as the almost brain dead Ansel, as is Gershon as his trailer-park-beauty-wife. It’s also nice to see Hirsch in a rewarding role, something it seems he’s been absent from for some time. And then there’s Temple who embodies the ambiguity of the film. Is she as fragile as her family assumes or does she understand more than they give her credit for?
Ultimately it’s a curious film and while rated NC-17, for some pretty heated violence and quite a bit of nudity, it’s not gory or sexual for the sake of it. Rather, those elements are inherent to the story and the characters. It creates a filthy realism that’s hard to shake.