Review: KILLER JOE

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

William Friedkin may be the gutsiest filmmaker Hollywood has ever seen.  Controversy has never frightened him away from taking on any film project.  Friedkin is best known as the director of films such as The Exorcist, The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A. and his most controversial movie to this day Cruising.  So, I honestly can’t think of any other director better suited to helm Killer Joe, based on the play by Tracy Letts.  This possibly darkest of dark comedies does not shy away from extreme violence, strong sexual content, and other disturbing material, earning it an NC-17 rating from the MPAA.  While definitely not for everyone’s tastes, I found the film to be sharply written and well directed by an infamously legendary filmmaker who hasn’t lost his touch.

In a small, dirty Texas town, ne’er do well (to put it way too mildly) Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) owes the corrupt Digger Sloanes (Marc Macaulay) way too much money.  Chris gets the bright idea to murder his mother for her substantial insurance money.  After selling his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) on the idea, the two hire local law man Joe Cooper (a fiery Matthew McConaughey) who also moonlights as a hired killer.  Without a cent to his name Chris promises to pay Joe once they collect the insurance money; however, Killer Joe demands a retainer fee–Chris’s sister Dottie (Juno Temple).

I honestly was not familiar with playwright Tracy Letts until I first heard of this movie.  Now after watching this film, I would love to watch another Letts/Friedkin collaboration called Bug.  I have to say that I was absolutely floored with the writing in this film.  Letts adapted his play for the big screen and does some amazing work.  The film offers a jaw dropping mix of hilarious humor, disturbing and unnerving content, and an intense story that often had me on the edge of my seat, eyes glued to the screen, and occasionally cringing.  I intend the description of my reactions as a compliment to a film well done by both Letts and director Friedkin.  Now, my only gripe has to do with some questionable editing which gives the movie some choppy moments.  I’m not sure if Friedkin and editor Darrin Navarro intended that, but I found it annoying and a tad distracting.  Another legend, known to film buffs, who makes a wonderful contribution to the film is cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.  Deschanel comes up with some lovely compositions here, giving the movie the perfect look.

I really could not find a single weak link in the cast.  McConaughey combines the right amount of serpentine charm, wit, and intimidating patience.  When he does fly off the handle a bit, he explodes on the screen as a perfect sociopath.  I must say that this has been quite the year for McConaughey.  With lauded roles in Bernie, Magic Mike, and this insanely disturbing turn in Killer Joe, it feels wonderful to see this talented actor take on some challenging parts when, at one time, he simply went for the easy paychecks.  As Chris Smith, Emile Hirsch also deserves much applause for portraying this often frustratingly idiotic character who exudes a charm of his own.  I really enjoyed Thomas Haden Church who plays Chris’ father Ansel and wonderfully illustrates that the apple doesn’t usually fall too far from the tree. Haden Church has some of the best lines in the movie that had me laughing constantly.

The usually sexy and gorgeous Gina Gershon doesn’t look so appealing in this film as Ansel’s second wife Sharla, but delivers an excellent performance.  Besides, McConaughey, though, the other exceptional acting comes from the extraordinary Juno Temple who plays the childlike and innocent Dottie.  I would love to see McConaughey ,Haden Church and Temple receive at least some nominations for their work here.  Besides the superb writing of Letts, the acting by these actors really excels.

Now, as far as my recommendations are concerned.  This film is not for the squeamish, easily offended, and certainly not for young audiences.  I do recommend this movie for film fans who can appreciate top notch writing, wonderful direction and magnificent acting, even if the material presented is unnerving, unsettling and difficult to watch.  Despite the effective humor, which isn’t always of the dark variety, this film does not present much light hearted content, and does go to some serious dark and heavy places.  Proceed with caution.

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