Review: Killer Joe (2011)

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Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple
Director: William Friedkin
Country: USA
Genre: Comedy | Crime | Thriller
Official Trailer: Here


Since breaking through in the early 1970s with New Hollywood classics The French Connection and The Exorcist, William Friedkin has petered off into relative obscurity, few of his films making much of a significant impression commercially or critically, only 1980’s Cruising managing to attract attention courtesy of its controversial depiction of the homosexual underground in New York city. Re-emerging as the provocateur he had established himself as with religiously themed early works like The Birthday Party and The Exorcist, Friedkin released Bug in 2006, a ferociously visceral quasi-horror production that earned him renewed attention for his undiminished ability to shock audiences with the same vim he had over three decades prior.

Friedkin is as provocative visually as Letts is narratively, favouring well-placed jump cuts that prevent the viewer from ever growing too comfortable within a scene. Never content with following established film grammar, he seems to enjoy entirely ignoring the 180 degree rule, jumping from one side of a conversation to the other, presenting even mundane interchanges with an unsettling asymmetry that lends a sinister sense of ill-ease.

Already infamous for one scene in particular, Killer Joe continues Friedkin’s journey into darker territory—suggestive perhaps of a new trend late in his career—being as Bug was an adaptation of a Tracy Letts play. Casting Matthew McConaughey as the titular Texan cop who performs assassinations on the side, the film also stars Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, and Gina Gershon as the members of a trailer park family who hire Joe to kill their mother and ex-wife for her lucrative life insurance fund.

Incorporating into the narrative the violent threat of a drug dealer whose cocaine Hirsch’s character is unable to pay for, Killer Joe is a film of unrestrained brutality, quick to test the limits of its audience’s ability to watch without wincing. More distressing still is its rife sexual content, both in scenes of nudity and of disquieting sexual threat. An oppressive atmosphere to put most horror films to shame hangs over the majority of scenes, the omnipresent threat of grievous harm crafting a sense of wary fascination with these events. Friedkin is as provocative visually as Letts is narratively, favouring well-placed jump cuts that prevent the viewer from ever growing too comfortable within a scene. Never content with following established film grammar, he seems to enjoy entirely ignoring the 180 degree rule, jumping from one side of a conversation to the other, presenting even mundane interchanges with an unsettling asymmetry that lends a sinister sense of ill-ease. With cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, he revels in the dark shadows of this world, allowing lightning-lit vistas illuminate the moral turpitude of his characters.

For all its graphic sexual imagery and violent content, the most striking aspect of Killer Joe is Matthew McConaughey’s revelatory performance, a transfixing show of screen-commanding charisma that derails his romantic comedy persona with such guided intent that it seems almost another actor entirely.

For all its graphic sexual imagery and violent content, the most striking aspect of Killer Joe is Matthew McConaughey’s revelatory performance, a transfixing show of screen-commanding charisma that derails his romantic comedy persona with such guided intent that it seems almost another actor entirely. He exudes the professional calm of Winston Wolf blended with the icy menace of Anton Chigurh, his every moment on screen a breath-bating symphony of discomfiting tension. His voice slices through the air with sinister abandon, the reverberant echo of his whispers filling the film’s soundscape with dreadful threat. Yet there’s a bleak comedy to Joe, and indeed to the film itself; little moments of humourous human folly abound, the idiosyncrasies of man abundant in even his darkest moments.

If Killer Joe has a major problem to distract from its manifest merits, then, it’s that none of its characters emerge from the bloody mess of the narrative as particularly appreciable human beings. Perhaps attributable to the source play’s standing as Letts’ first, its more human dimensions pale in comparison to his former collaboration with Friedkin. A similarly intense, riveting, and squirmishly uncomfortable viewing experience, Bug thrived on the emotional investment its characters incited, allowing them to become gateways to a deeper understanding of the film’s supporting ideas, a connection none in Killer Joe ever really manage to muster. Only Juno Temple manages to approach some semblance of sympathy as Joe’s “retainer”, a sweet-natured girl too caught up in the fantasy of escaping her life to recognise the dangers of those who might bring it to her. Much like her, we remain blind to the truth of these characters, and it’s our inability to see them as anything more than that that holds Killer Joe back from the brutal brilliance its transgressiveness should reap.

[notification type=”star”]74/100 ~ GOOD. Killer Joe is a film of unrestrained brutality, quick to test the limits of its audience’s ability to watch without wincing, yet our inability to see its characters as anything more than that holds the film back from the brutal brilliance its transgressiveness should reap.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.