Their first crime was being stupid – Killer Joe review

Killer Joe – Starring Matthew McConaughey, Juno Temple, and Emile Hirsch. Directed by William Friedkin. Rated R. By Simon Miraudo.

Their first crime was being stupid. The subjects of Tracy Letts’ play Killer Joe give trailer trash a bad name. They are trailer effluvia; fortunate enough to have taken human form, but lacking all the necessary requirements to keep themselves from accidentally orchestrating their own violent deaths. Usually, an author’s unabashed disdain for their characters makes for an unpleasant viewing experience. But in William Friedkin‘s film adaptation (also written by Letts), we are encouraged to take pleasure in the revelry, and giggle as everyone unwittingly strolls towards punishment, because they deserve it. It’s a testament to Friedkin’s lasting power as a director, Letts’ unmistakable way with words, and the entire cast’s truly game commitment, that this thing is even remotely watchable, let alone fun, funny, and fundamentally entertaining.

Idiot drug dealer Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) loses his stash of cocaine, and winds up deep in debt to some violent thugs. During one thunder-struck evening, he comes to his dumb ol’ dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) with an idea: they should hire someone to whack Chris’ biological mother, so that his emotionally damaged teen sister Dottie (Juno Temple) can claim the life insurance. That $50,000 will be enough to keep the aggressors at bay, pay off the hit man, and provide the Smiths with a nice little financial bonus. We’ve seen these plans go awry when formulated by genius masterminds. Chris and Ansel have no chance of seeing this thing end successfully. They call upon depraved Dallas detective (and part time murderer) Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), offering him the sexual services of Dottie as a retainer in lieu of his usual $25,000 fee. He accepts their offer, having already been charmed by her acquaintance. These are ugly, ugly people.

A lot happens over the course of Killer Joe, as you may have likely assumed with this many moving pieces in play. However, two key sequences are likely to scorch themselves in your mind. The first is Dottie’s “date” with Joe. Juno Temple is remarkably fragile and unusual in this, with her innocence masking darker traits either genetically passed on from her morally decrepit family, or fostered by years of abuse. Even more impressive is McConaughey, who deploys his charm as a blistering, terrifying weapon. Watching Joe slowly, sweetly, and then insistently toy with Dottie is harrowing stuff, only topped by the other memorable movie moment, in which he interrogates Ansel’s cheating wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) as to the whereabouts of his money. Seeing that veneer of restraint stripped away from McConaughey like so much fried chicken skin is deeply unsettling. In the final moments, he charges around the Smiths’ trailer like a prowling animal, torturing them in ways that I couldn’t possibly write here (and in ways that I’ve never seen before).

Though the movie carries the unmistakable mark of having been formerly a play – fewer scenes/longer scenes than in the usual fare – it has been lovingly and gorgeously adapted, whilst still maintaining that visceral, invasive, immersive, and inescapable sensation of seeing the horror unfold live. Make-up indicating bruises, blood stains, and greasy leftovers are smeared in such a manner that is almost beautiful, and certainly disgusting. Much of the movie’s look reminded me of Twin Peaks, and it was only a mild surprise to learn that Caleb Deschanel (who photographed several notable episodes) was the cinematographer here. Stage-to-screen adaptations are rarely this primal, and it’s been a long time since a William Friedkin film has felt so vital.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Killer Joe arrives on DVD and Blu-ray in Australia November 14, 2012.

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