Killer Joe (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Chris (Emile Hirsch) owes six thousand dollars to a local gangster and if he does not pay his loan within a couple of days, goons will be sent to kill him. Chris’ mother has just kicked him out of her house and, out of anger, he tells his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), that her life insurance policy is worth fifty thousand dollars. To get that money into their pockets, all they have to do is find a way to kill her. Rex, the boyfriend of Chris’ mother, tells Chris that he knows a man willing to do the job. For twenty-five thousand dollars, Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a detective, will perform the service. The only problem is that he requires to be paid in advance.
Make no mistake that although its premise has elements of a crime-thriller, “Killer Joe,” based on the play and screenplay by Tracy Letts, is a comedy so grim (but deliciously lurid), each chuckle is almost always accompanied with a feeling of guilt. All of the characters we have the pleasure to observe trade their morals for the possibility of getting a couple thousand bucks richer without a moment’s thought.
The performances are grating during the first twenty minutes. Hirsch as a desperate loser sounds as though he is reading from the script as he attempts to get his sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), to unlock the front door of their father’s trailer home so he can get inside. There is a lack of verve to his performance in the opening scenes and I began to question if he was fit to play the role. Hirsch and everyone else’s performances, however, is elevated once McConaughey’s cold and calculating Joe dives into the mix. When Joe speaks and tells a story from his past, the actor that has starred in a handful of flat and uninspired romantic comedies disappears completely. Since McConaughey takes a risk by not holding a level of intensity but actually playing with it, we almost feel his co-stars being challenged and wanting to feed off the unpredictability in front of them.
Although the picture does not shy away from putting the violence front and center, it excels in creating intimate scenes, most often between two people, under the guidance of director William Friedkin. It feels wrong to watch Joe and Dottie, who we can assume to be underaged, first converse about mundane topics, work up to flirtation over a meal, and eventually get intimate physically, but it is impossible not to want their scenes to continue because the script and the acting have formed a synergistic magnetism. Joe’s need to take the girl’s virginity and the girl’s unsure sexuality is such an interesting combination that it undermines the circumstances involving the possible murder.
And that, ultimately, is the main problem. The central crime in “Killer Joe” neither has the strength nor the off-kilter palate to complement the good, sometimes great, performances. If the individual scenes between Dottie and Joe; Joe and Sharla (Gina Gershon), Ansel’s new wife and Chris’ stepmother; and Chris and Dottie were taken out, what remains fit the description of a hundred bland crime pictures.