Published on September 11th, 2015 | by Clint Davis
Killer Joe 
Summary: This sleazy Texas drama isn't easy to digest and won't have you packing your bags for the Lonestar State. Two flawless performances stick out but you may just fall in love with Juno Temple before it's over.
R | 102 min.
Director: William Friedkin | Screenplay: Tracy Letts (based on his play)
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Matthew McConaughey, Juno Temple
Studio: Voltage Pictures, Worldview Entertainment, ANA Media | Distribution: LD Entertainment
When you watch a film that’s been adapted from a dramatic play, you can usually tell fairly quickly. The sets are minimal, the cast is small and the dialogue is heavy. Some perfect examples include 1972’s Sleuth, 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross (one of my all-time favorite movies), and 2008’s Doubt. All were acted superbly and featured little more than plot to keep their audience’s attention. 2012’s Killer Joe was unmistakably adapted from the stage as well — but has a bit more meat on its bones in terms of carnal pleasures than those films.
Director William Friedkin, whose most well-known pictures came out forty years before this one, takes us to a world that nobody wants to be part of. The man who thrilled viewers with The French Connection and scared the hell out of them with The Exorcist, does a bit of both in Killer Joe.
Its story is played out in broken down Dallas County, Texas, far from the star-studded world of Jerry Jones’s Cowboys. The only cowboy in this movie is the kind you’d be better off running away from than asking about stories from the trail. Matthew McConaughey, who is currently on the hottest streak of his long career, plays “Killer” Joe Cooper, a lawman that doubles as a hit man provided you can pay his fee. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is a young drug-dealing loser that decides to hire Joe to take out his mother — a woman that we’re led to believe deserves the grisly fate.
Chris, his simpleton father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), and conniving stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) don’t have the cash to pay Joe but promise that the $50,000 life insurance policy on the target’s head will provide his settlement once she’s dead. Meanwhile, Joe takes a liking to the family’s bright-eyed virginal daughter Dottie (Juno Temple) and decides to use her as a retainer until they pay up.
As you can tell, the cast of Killer Joe is a hodgepodge of actors that have no business being mixed into one film together. I felt the casting choices were very hit and miss. McConaughey and Temple are incredible, so much so that I couldn’t imagine any other actors in those roles. Gershon is surprisingly solid in the film’s least glamorous role. Hirsch and Church, however, were miscast in my opinion. Obviously these are two very talented actors but their roles here didn’t fit their styles — Hirsch is at his best as introspective characters but here he’s just a desperate, dimwitted criminal and Church has few chances to show of his expert comedic timing. Maybe it’s the fact that these two characters are so similar they could have probably been combined into one but these performances are what kept Killer Joe from launching to greatness.
This is the kind of pitch-black film that drips sleaze, much like another featuring McConaughey the following year. Our primary setting is a Texas trailer park with an ever-barking pitbull chained up to the next doublewide over. To these characters, the $6,000 and change they will each get after Joe’s deed is done is well worth killing someone over. With the exception of Dottie, the entire cast is a gang of sordid lowlifes that are only watching out for number one.
Meanwhile, Dottie is simply a sweetheart. How she’s managed to keep an ounce of optimism amidst her family is a tribute to the ignorance of youth. British actress Juno Temple, 22 at the time Killer Joe was released, proves she’s one of acting’s upcoming gems with her performance here. She may act a little too young for a teenage character but Temple is brilliant as the movie’s only endearing character. The audience is drawn to Dottie’s goofy smile because of all the grime surrounding it in this story. Also, it’s probably good that most teenage girls don’t possess a body like Temple’s or the number of registered sex offenders might quadruple…
Which brings me to the film’s matter-of-fact treatment of sex. I ripped Lee Daniels’s The Paperboy because it made sex out to be wrong and evil, causing major problems for all the of film’s characters. In Killer Joe, the sex presented onscreen is far from sexy, but is treated more as just an ugly fact of life than a source of conflict. In the film’s first 15 minutes, we see both of the female characters fully nude and a scene at a strip club is thrown in for good measure. The women in Killer Joe are literally objectified, as Dottie’s virginity is used as a bargaining chip between her family and Joe.
*Note: Nudity doesn’t shock me in movies, but I have to say the amount of pubic hair on display here was staggering — between Gershon and Temple, there is enough to fill a stack of 1970s Hustler magazines (rimshot!).
I had fun watching Killer Joe because it’s heavy on atmosphere and several of its performances are flawless. This film is far from a jovial night at the movies but if you like your pictures with some deep-fried grit, give Killer Joe a spin…you may never look at a KFC chicken leg the same way again.