Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
Killer Joe, the latest offering from director William Friedkin, serves up murder and family dysfunction with a demented Texas twist. Based on the play by Tracy Letts, who adapted his own work for the screen, the film isn’t for everyone and could very leave town after a week. The NC-17 rating is an immediate deterrent, but the way in which that rating is earned is another matter entirely. No problem. Perfectly understandable. But for those who enjoy the occasional stick of dynamite in their cinema diet, best to rush out and catch this psychotic treat before it’s gone.
With a debt owed to a Dallas-area gangster, Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) pays his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) a midnight visit and lays out a proposition: hire dirty cop Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to knock off his mother and collect her $50,000 insurance policy, the sole beneficiary of which is his dimwitted sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Pay Joe his fee, repay the gangster, and divvy up the rest. Easy money.
But Joe demands his half up front, and when Chris and Ansel can’t pay, Joe offers to take Dottie, with whom he’s developed a lecherous rapport, as his retainer. Chris and Ansel comply and Joe all but moves in with the Smiths as Dottie’s mate until his money arrives. As the plan nears completion, however, Chris grows increasingly frustrated with the arrangement. With Ansel’s wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) further complicating matters on the side, tensions rise as the story builds to an explosive finale in which the nutty elements collide and combine to reach new heights of depravity.
In establishing its hillbilly criminal world, Killer Joe earns its stripes with varying success. On one side are Hirsch and Church, actors who have nailed the right role in the past, but who here merely play at being trailer trash. They look the part and spout the right words, but the manner in which they do so is marred with amateurism. The film’s early scenes, in which those two are prominently featured, likewise attempt to depict a wild, sinful world simply by throwing a bunch of extreme images at the screen in a blatant attempt to shock and awe. The sight of Gershon’s nether regions and the like are indeed jarring, but just as two wheels don’t quite make a bicycle, these components stand meaninglessly alone and fail to produce a cohesive product.
Not until about the quarter mark, when McConaughey and Temple firmly make the film their own, does the world begin to fully take form. These two aren’t simply playing at being bizarre Texans; they are these people. Through their smooth interpretation of the dialogue and the commanding presence they bring to each frame, the pair elevate the material above mere mimicry and provide a foundation from which the surrounding perverse details can at last bloom. Alongside far less-capable colleagues, who crash their scenes like uninvited guests, their achievements become increasingly evident.
As is frequently the case with play adaptations, Killer Joe suffers the occasional stumble in its transition from stage to screen. Along with the lesser performers’ inability to read dramatic lines, numerous scenes reek of the theater and feel confined location-wise. Friedkin, however, manages to flip the latter into one of Killer Joe’s prime assets. As the film winds down and the suspense is ratcheted up, Friedkin responds in kind, keeping his cast trapped in the Smiths’ trailer like insects in a jar. In one notably taut, revelatory moment, his camera, rarely interesting or active up to that point, slowly drifts across the horrific scene, drawing out an additional sliver of restrained terror when it appeared to be tapped dry. It’s a scene of such raw, dramatic power that it could only have come from the stage, yet with a subtle cinematic touch, Friedkin imbues it with maximum effectiveness, granting it more allure than any live performance could possibly muster.
Characters like these can only be subdued for so long, however, and the action that follows goes deep into the unexpected, earning the film’s NC-17 rating as it dares viewers to look away. Upon its conclusion, fried chicken legs will never look the same and neither will the film’s few distinctly committed stars. These talented actors and their director make Killer Joe a unique experience that, though flawed, is sure to linger long after the credits roll.
Rated NC-17 for graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality.
Killer Joe opens Friday, August 31 at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
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