Review - Killer Joe


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Finger licking good
Killer Joe (2012)
William Friedkin
Matthew McConaughey, Juno Temple
Release Date:
Age Rating:
When Chris gets in to debt with some less than savoury types, he figures his only way out is to hire a part time hitman (and full time cop) to kill his mother in order to collect her life insurance policy.

Killer Joe is the latest from director William Friedkin. He made his debut on TV in the 60s before working on a string of comedies but it wasn’t until 1971 that he exploded onto the international scene, earning a Best Director Oscar for The French Connection, which also won Best Picture, Writing, Actor and Editing. He’s still likely best known for the powerful 1973 effort The Exorcist, with his success tapering off in the 70s and 80s, though Sorcerer and To Live and Die in L.A. have their fans.
In 2006 Friedkin first teamed up with playwright Tracy Letts to bring the former’s 1996 play Bug to the big screen and he proves inspirational again for Killer Joe, based on Letts’ 1993 play of the same name.

The film is a decadent slice of Southern Gothic, drenched in rain, dirt and multichrome lighting, which traces the misfortunes of a young man called Chris (Emile Hirsch) who will stop at nothing to erase the debt on his head.

Killer Joe is certainly an uncomfortable film, thoroughly deserving of the NC-17 rating slapped on it in the States and dealing openly with themes of child abuse, murder and sadism. But it’s also got a refreshingly wry touch, tempering those darker moments with wordplay and a lightness which helps to make those characters feel more real. Even the most obviously uncomfortable scene, and doubtless the one that earned the film its rating, can’t help but elicit titters from the audience, forcing them to become helplessly complicit in the actions on screen.

This difficult tone is handled wonderfully by Friedkin, whose over the top antics have softened a little over the years. Killer Joe is raw but the most shocking things come out of the motivations of the characters, rather than their explicit on screen actions. Next to the cowardly, craven and impossibly selfish actions of the Smith family, the most terrifying thing is that Joe seems almost reasonable.

Friedkin pulls some great performances from his cast here – notably a never better McConaughey who plays Joe with more subtlety than you might expect. He’s not a well adjusted man but neither is he hopelessly psychotic, keeping himself reigned in as long as his rules are obeyed. Polite, literate and well behaved for the most part, Joe’s relationship with little Dottie (Juno Temple) reveals even further depths to his character that may be distasteful to some but manage to never seem incongruous. Temple herself is amazing as Dottie – elfin and of indeterminate age, she’s also somewhat ethereal, prone to strange pronouncements yet sometimes more aware of what’s happening than she lets on.

Thomas Haden Church plays cowed and cowardly on fine form and it’s good to see Gina Gershon back on screen, with the only weak casting coming in the form of Emile Hirsch – who never captures the desperation or truly despicable nature of his role.

Killer Joe is an intense film without question but it’s also more than just a poorly disguised video nasty. The performances are top notch, the story dark and twisted with a touch of levity and its all captured beautifully by the masterful Caleb Deschanel’s digital lensing. Friedkin’s best in years.

8 Stars: Recommended
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