Killer Joe review

Respected filmmaker William Friedkin returns with Killer Joe, a dark, unsettling drama full of moral ambiguity. Here’s Ryan’s review...

Killer Joe is an insanely tricky film to review. Tricky because its director is William Friedkin, whose most acclaimed movies – The French Connection, The Exorcist and To Live And Die In L.A. – speak for themselves. Tricky because Killer Joe is an intensely dislikeable film about dislikeable people screaming at each other in a caravan somewhere in American’s Deep South.

The movie opens on Chris (Emile Hirsch), a young man whose vices have led him to owe a considerable sum of money to a local crime boss. Said boss has at his disposal a menagerie of henchmen who’ll cheerfully dismember Chris if he’s not remunerated in short order. But on hearing the news that his mother would be worth $50,000 in insurance money if she were to suddenly meet her maker, Chris suggests the idea of having her killed to his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church).

Strangely, Ansel’s both stupid and morally rudderless enough to go along with this, and so he and Chris hire the murderous services of Joe (Matthew McConnaughey), a cop who makes extra cash on the side by assassinating people. Joe’s fee is $25,000 – more than Chris or Ansell were expecting – and in the absence of hard currency, the father and son willingly allow Joe to have sex with their respective daughter and sister, the virginal Dottie (Juno Temple) as a mutually agreed ‘down payment’.

Now Joe, as the title implies, is not a pleasant man. You can tell because he dresses mostly in black (black Stetson, black leather gloves with matching jacket, black shades and perfectly pressed black trousers), and because he talks with a slight whistle between his teeth – like John McCain or the elderly child molester out of Family Guy.

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 Naturally, when you place naive characters in the orbit of such leather-clad evil, things go awry. But things go don’t go awry in an intriguingly southern noir, No Country For Old Men or Blood Simple sort of way, or even in the gut-wrenching manner of a tragic drama. No, Killer Joe unfolds in a series of horrible vignettes, like a wildlife documentary where one hideous group of creatures is slowly devoured by another.

Even the unwilling seduction of Temple’s teen of indeterminable (yet worryingly young) age isn’t framed as a tragic or disturbing moment – merely unseemly. Horrific, savage things happen, which are shocking on an intellectual level, but utterly without import in terms of the characters. This is a group of people so uniformly idiotic and hypocritical, they’re impossible to care about.

Not that this is the fault of the actors, who all put their heart and soul into these grotty little paper dolls they’re asked to inhabit. McConnaughey is appropriately sinister, Church huffs and grumps as the insufferable father, while Temple and Gina Gershon put themselves through all kinds of horrors as the story requires.

The film’s problems lie at the feet of writer Tracy Letts and director William Friedkin. Letts’ dialogue comes fitfully alive in some scenes, but descends into repetition in others – characters appear to rant the same lines to each other over and over again, and those characters seldom emerge as anything more than stock clichés – the virginal, naive blonde, the lumbering redneck father, the spiteful, duplicitous wife, and so on.

Exactly who we can blame for the film’s vicious streak of misogyny is hard to say, since I haven’t seen Letts’ 1993 play from which this is adapted. Certainly, it’s the most unpleasant, regressive film I’ve seen in years, and makes the violence against women in, say, the controversial The Killer Inside Me seem positively gentle by comparison. Killer Joe is one of those films where woman are either utterly useless, slyly Machiavellian or both; the kind of film that delights in leering over women forced into humiliating sexual situations, or beaten to a pulp. 

That Friedkin should choose to make such a film in this manner would be bad enough, but the crime is compounded by his poor direction; there are scenes where characters shriek inaudibly at one another for interminable stretches, and where the camera is positioned where we can see that the supposedly brutal blows from a debt collector aren’t even close to hitting their mark. These are all directorial faults, since they could have all been fixed at the shooting and editing stage.

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Similarly, Friedkin could have chosen to tone down the excesses of what I presume was in the script; the trailer park-dwelling trash who exist to eat chicken, watch monster trucks on TV and drink beer. At one point, a tin of pumpkin is used as a weapon.

Is the movie intended as some sort of reverse dig at people who’d denigrate people who live in trailer parks? Is it a satire of Southern clichés in cinema? I’m sure Friedkin knows the answers to those questions, but you won’t find any clues in Killer Joe’s gloomy, grubby exhibition of atrocities.

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2 out of 5