With its blunt title and poster featuring a blood-spattered piece of fried chicken in the shape of Texas, one might expect “Killer Joe” to be a nonstop Southern-fried killfest of “Grindhouse” proportions. But “Killer Joe” isn’t really that kind of movie. A more apt comparison would be last year’s masterful “Drive.” We’re introduced to this world of menace and sleaze fairly early in the film, but don’t get to see its participants in action until the midway point, playing it cool and calculated the whole way. But unlike “Drive,” which was slowly built up steam until it left your head spinning after it crossed the finish line with both its bloody violence and deeper ruminations on morality, “Killer Joe” only gets you halfway there, sheepishly grins, and asks you if you’d like a chicken leg.
Normally, this would be a bad thing, but director William Friedkin and company make the ride so enthralling and the metaphorical chicken tasty enough to make up for most of the flaws in the film’s construction.
Based on the play of the same name by Tracy Letts (this is Friedkin’s second adaptation in a row of a Letts play, after 2006’s creepy “Bug”), “Killer Joe” is a fairly shrewd film about stupid people. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is in deep ca-ca after he finds himself in debt to some unsavory drug dealers, so he escapes the home of his unsavory mother to hatch a plan with his estranged loser father (Thomas Haden Church) and growly, no-nonsense stepmother (Gina Gershon) to kill the evil woman and inherit the insurance money through his sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). Chris hires a cop who works as an assassin on the side and is known only as “Killer Joe” (Matthew McConaughey) to do the deed, but doesn’t quite think the payment through and ends up having to pay Joe with Dottie’s company. To say “it gets worse from there” would be an understatement.
The best thing about “Killer Joe” is easily the performances, especially that of McConaughey as the title character. McConaughey usually alternates between a few different stock roles (slimy douchenozzle with his shirt on, slimy douchenozzle with his shirt off…), and thus has never been given the chance to be as electrifying as he is here. He evokes Anthony Hopkins in “Silence of the Lambs” with his penetrating gaze and striking ability to be both icily mannered and psychotic at the same time, and puts every single one of his prior performances to shame. If nothing else, watch the movie for him.
The supporting players are no slouches, either, even if they are somewhat limited by the material. Hirsch is often too twitchy and “actorly” to create a real character rather than a set of “acting” moments, but he’s still a perfect fit for the desperate Chris, and he makes his stupidity oddly compelling, even a bit charming. Gershon and Church make the best of the stock roles they’re handed and even elevate them, but the standout among the supporting roles is Juno Temple. Her Dottie is quirky but not obnoxiously so, drifting between of a dreamlike, slightly bubbly stupor flecked with girlish innocence and something much darker. Her scenes with McConaughey (which are few, but effective) reveal a surprisingly tender undertone to the film about alienation and contrasts perfectly with the cutthroat nastiness of the rest of the film’s universe.
Friedkin’s direction is also superb. He is a master of setting mood and tone through a simple image or color scheme, as evidenced in the film’s opening sequence: Friedkin deftly strings together a collection of images that both nail the noirish mood he’s aiming for and become recurring sights that ominously foreshadow events to come without being overly obvious. Also effective is the way the film plays cat-and-mouse with its audience by framing each shot like a filmed stage performance for an icky voyeuristic feel, turning everyday situations into potentially explosive ones.
Unfortunately, once you get past the film’s craft, the flaws become more apparent. First, there’s the matter of not just how “Killer Joe” is paced, but what it direction it takes the story. The film plays more as a collection of moments than a unified whole. The film is perfectly content to wallow in these bizarre moments and let the characters bounce off each other and attempt to satirize Americana culture (and they aren’t bad moments, for sure), but the film never really builds to anything, and when it becomes a sadistic bloodbath in its final minutes in an attempt to live up its NC-17 rating, it just goes limp. Not that the violence isn’t disturbing (there’s a scene involving fried chicken that will make KFC look iffy for the rest of forever), but it doesn’t feel properly set up in context. And that’s to say nothing of the ending, which frustrates by providing barely any closure without serving any artistic purpose.
The characters also lack much proper setup beyond their initial impressions, and Friedkin never really attempts to offer any psychological insight. There are some nice tidbits here and there (Gershon changing a misplaced pizza order into dinner on a dime), but we don’t have much of an idea of what makes these people tick.
The verdict? “Killer Joe” is just shy of being great… but good will do for now.
Speakeasy Grade: B
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple
Rated NC-17 for graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality