Friday 8 January 2021

Movie Review: Killer Joe (2011)

A raw crime drama, Killer Joe takes pleasure wallowing in humanity's sewer. The twisted plot offers plenty of perversions before unravelling.

In Dallas, Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) owes money to drug dealers. He conspires with his dimwitted father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) to hire police detective "Killer" Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who moonlights as an assassin-for-hire, to kill Ansel's ex-wife. Her insurance policy pays out $50,000 to her daughter Dottie (Juno Temple), a naive young woman and victim of child abuse. After paying Killer, the plan is for Chris, Ansel and Dottie to share the money, but then Ansel insists his current wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) also gets a cut.

Joe takes a liking to Dottie, and in lieu of receiving his $25,000 fee up-front, he demands Dottie as a "retainer". With his sister now a sex slave and Joe making himself comfortable in the home of Ansel and Sharla, Chris starts to have doubts about the whole plot, but much worse is to come.

Luxuriating in the grime of immoral behaviour, Killer Joe aims for Coen brothers shadings. Tracy Letts wrote the script based on his own play, and William Friedkin directs with one eye towards sly humour and the other firmly fixed on extremes of depravity. With the slime glistening under the Texas skies, Killer Joe promises much and at least for a while delivers fine moments of white trash artistry

The Smith family are mired in poverty, stupidity and the pursuit of lost causes. Ansel at least knows he is dim and is therefore one step ahead of Chris, who is still awakening to his limitations. Sharla is just looking for a meal ticket and a roof over her head, and for now, Ansel will do. Which leaves Dottie as the only character worth caring for, a naive, pitiful young woman, essentially sold into sexual slavery by her brother and father. By the time Chris decides he ought to maybe rescue his sister, the damage is done.

Killer Joe struts into this family sniffing easy opportunities first for money then for free sexual favours. He is much smarter than Chris and Ansel, but also much more nefarious. And when his worst tendencies surface in the third act, Killer Joe unfortunately stumbles and falls. Letts and Friedkin settle for a stagebound single-set climax, then go looking for extremes of behaviour (involving fried chicken) for maximum shock value. The gambit misfires, the search for cheap notoriety sacrificing the drama's sharp edges.

Matthew McConaughey cruises through the film in icy arrogance mode, Emile Hirsch compensating with frantic desperation. Thomas Haden Church finds the necessary open-mouthed imbecility. Gina Gershon and Juno Temple are asked to do most of the heavy lifting, both actresses displaying courage in physically humiliating roles.

Killer Joe earns head-shaking stares, but when the drama is overrun by theatrics, it's time to look away.

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