Killer Joe

Aug 21, 2012

Noir dark and light enough.

Killer Joe
Grade: B
Director: William Friedkin (The Exorcist)
Screenplay: Tracy Letts (Bug), from his play
Cast: Matthew McConaughey (Magic Mike), Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild)
Rating: NC-17
Runtime: 102 min

Killer Joe is a killer of a contemporary film noir with seedy detective, trashy trailer denizens, moody lighting, and violence sometimes neorealist and other times strictly outré. In any event, Matthew McConaughey as the corrupt cop Joe Cooper is at his prime with “eyes that hurt.” Cooper has a side job when working for the Dallas Police Department: an expensive assassin. A not very sharp Chris (Emile Hirsch) hires him to murder his mom for her insurance. Other members of the family, equally non-sharp, are in on the deal, making the murder decidedly difficult.

The film falls into the category of “hicksploitation” with an extremely wide trailer for major family scenes, beer at all times, and tuna casserole for romantic dinners. Not to be outdone by greasy fried chicken for family night. Do wait around to see what Killer Joe does with a drumstick, an original bit of Southern grotesque about which Flannery O’Connor would approve.

The players in the Smith family all deserve a shout out: Thomas Hayden Church is a dense father, Ansel, who can be cowardly and clueless at the same time; Gina Gershon as his wife Sharla, has a Jane Russell electricity while maintaining the high white trash profile; Emile Hirsch as Chris is callow and clueless, a perfect foil for Joe; and Juno Temple as young Dottie effectively carries innocence, boredom, and pent up hostility.

Director William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist), knowing a bit about suspense and off-center characters, keeps the action moving toward an inscrutable ending, which may contain too much perversity and blood for some viewers, but for others will be just the ticket to entertainment and horror.

Killer Joe is Tracy Letts’ first play, certainly not the sophistication of his Tony Award-winning August: Osage County that came over a decade later. Yet, Killer is a memorably dark and crude story made menacing by an underplaying Matthew McConaughey and a mise en scene too ripe with trash to be ignored.

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at He also appears on Fox 28’s Man Panel.
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