Killer Joe Review

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In debt to local goons, Chris Smith (Hirsch) and his lowlife family hire Killer Joe (McConaughey) to bump off his mother for the insurance money. A plan he really hasn’t thought through.


Like fellow 1970s firebrand Francis Coppola, William Friedkin has grown content with the small and stagey. His latest film is based on a play by Pulitzer Prize-winning Tracy Letts, as was his last — the paranoiac Bug. Killer Joe was shot in 19 days, in a pocketful of Texan locations, gifting actors with mesmerising monologues to show off their chops. Sophisticated stuff, if you discount ersatz fellatio with a chicken drumstick.

Friedkin may have economised his grandstanding, but The Exorcist’s enfant terrible has hardly thrown in his lot with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’s early birds. His new film has landed the notorious NC-17 rating in America for its lather of sex, violence, violent sex, and violent sex-related simulation. The atmosphere is as sticky as flypaper, the humour black as the inside of a rooster, and its offensive intensity will send you reeling in search of a shower.

We greet the dangerously dim-witted and unappetising Smith clan at their wits’ end (somewhere you suspect they frequent as regularly as the liquor store). Idiotic drug-bum Chris (jumping-bean Emile Hirsch), in hock to local goons, has turned to his even more acumen-deficient pop Ansel (showcasing Thomas Haden Church’s gift for the guileless) and suspiciously game stepmom Sharla (Gina Gershon, who apparently has a ‘no underwear’ clause in her contract) to hire a hitman to execute his matricidal scam. Enter silk-smooth Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a cop with an extracurricular line in murder, who is persuaded to work on a promise, as long as Chris’ younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) serves as collateral.

Quite what genre we are loitering in is open to question. Killer Joe is Texan trailer-trash neo-noir, stage adaptation, crime-gone-wrong fable, and scuzzy, Tennessee Williams-on-crack family meltdown with a dubious line in female full-frontal. More lurid than the Coens, less self-aware than Tarantino, it’s Carnage with thickos; but Friedkin is in control, searching for light in very murky places.

Walking a perilously thin line between misogyny and applied depravity, he’s turned in a perverse spin on Cinderella — only innocent-with-a-twist Dottie’s Prince Charming is a scumbag in a big hat with “eyes that hurt”. McConaughey gives the film its Mephistophelean pull: his line-delivery lacquered with honeyed menace, he summons a dread-like gravity — a vilely hilarious stride along his quest to prove he is more than the jutting prow of Kate Hudson rom-coms.

Family dysfunction to make Jeremy Kyle blush, but thanks to McConaughey’s oily power and Friedkin’s unflinching purpose it’s a compelling beast.