• FILM

  • SEARCH FOR

Killer Joe

Killer Joe

Directed by William Friedkin. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Marc Macaulay. (2011, NC-17, 103 min.)

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 3, 2012

You've got to feel at least a twinge of sympathy for the squeamish moral arbiters at the MPAA (the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board). Like art and pornography, they may not have a codified definition of Very Fucking Disturbing on file, but they know it when they gag on it. This Texan trailer park noir is as perverse and ugly as they come, and I mean that in a nice way. It's thoroughly riddled with a cast of wormy characters enacting a kind of Southern gothic bottom-feeding frenzy that puts even the Kardashian clan to shame. And, lo and behold, as the titular cop-cum-assassin, McConaughey coughs up one of the very best characters of his career. Bongos? He don't need no stinkin' bongos. He does just fine with a family-sized bucket of K-Fried-C and an oily, dead-eyed grimace that leaks evil like Dallas leaks strip-mauled and soul-killing sprawl.

Adapted by Steppenwolf Theatre playwright Tracy Letts from his stage play and directed by Friedkin (The Exorcist and, more recently, the underrated Bug, which was also originally a Letts play), Killer Joe would have made for some fine grindhouse fare back in the day. It throbs with echoes everything from Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me to Elia Kazan's Baby Doll to Little Miss Marker, and trust me, you're going to want to take a scalding hot shower with a steel-wool loofa after its ecstatically nihilistic final sequence. Sleazy, yes, but Killer Joe is more than the sum of its sultry, sordid parts. That's thanks to some seriously fearless acting from McConaughey and Gershon in particular, but really, the whole ensemble cast is uniformly excellent (again, in a very creepy way).

Hirsch is Chris Smith, an idling twentysomething burnout who is in deep and deadly debt to local kingpin Digger Soames (Macaulay). Chris turns for help at the doorstep of the double-wide trailer shared by his morally deficient, mentally moribund dad (Church, perfect); skeevy stepmom Sharla (Gershon); and googly-eyed, virgin-naif sister Dottie (Temple). A plan is hatched, with matricide at its black and hardened heart, but none of these exurban wastrels figures on Killer Joe's icy tenacity and queasily imperturbable mien. Absolute doom ensues.

At 76, Friedkin still holds our gaze with striking, often ghastly visual images, and despite the fact that McConaughey's entire wardrobe appears to have been rented from Villains "R" Us, Killer Joe lands blow after blow to the psyche. It's ostensibly a Southern-fried comedy of terrors, but what little humor the film evinces almost immediately lodges in your windpipe like an errant bit of K-Fried-C gristle. Kin to Blue Velvet's Frank Booth, McConaughey's Joe is sociopathy incarnate in black-leather Tony Lamas, looking to profit, or kiss, or kill, or, preferably, all of the above.

See "Not Your Average Joe," August 3, for an interview with William Friedkin.

READ MORE
More Killer Joe
Billy Friedkin Kills It
Billy Friedkin Kills It
Extended Q&A with the man behind 'The Exorcist,' 'French Connection'

Marjorie Baumgarten, Aug. 2, 2012

More Killer Joe
Not Your Average Joe
Not Your Average Joe
William Friedkin on sex, violence, and 'spandex movies'

Marjorie Baumgarten, Aug. 3, 2012

More William Friedkin Films
Bug
The Exorcist's William Friedkin directs this psychological thriller that never really gets under your skin.

Steve Davis, June 1, 2007

The Hunted
Possibly the least cost-effective game of hide-and-seek ever devised, The Hunted is also great fun for those of us who miss playing in the mud ...

Marc Savlov, March 21, 2003

More by Marc Savlov
The Choice
Nicholas Sparks' romantic yearnings once again flood our screens

Feb. 12, 2016

St. Vincent Price
St. Vincent Price
Victoria Price celebrates her father's legacy

Feb. 12, 2016

KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Killer Joe, William Friedkin, Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Marc Macaulay

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
This content has not been formatted for this window size.
Please increase the size of your browser window, or revisit this page on a mobile device.
NEWSLETTERS
AC Daily, Events and Promotions, SXSW Daily Edition

Our latest from SXSW 2016, delivered March 11-20

Breaking news, recommended events, and more

Official Chronicle events, promotions, and giveaways