Killer Joe – Film Review

Director William Friedkin’s new film, Killer Joe, is a difficult watch.  Two things:  a) It earns its NC-17 rating, and b) you may find yourself asking, if this is based on a play, how on earth did the last fifteen minutes act out on stage?

Drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) finds himself in a tight corner.  His mother has stolen his stash and his suppliers want their $6,000 now or they’ll kill him.  “Better get out of town quick,” is all the advice his father (Thomas Haden Church) can give.  Then Chris comes up with a plan; hire contract killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to kill the mother in order to collect the insurance.  Simple, except it all goes wrong, and Joe is forced to collect.


The ominous tone of the film is evident from the beginning.  From a dark screen all we hear is metallic clicking – it’s the sound of a cigarette lighter opening and closing – followed by thunder and lightning, then gun shots.  Without images we are already plunged into something dark and portentous, like an ill-omen you want to brush away but can’t.  You spend the next hundred minutes fearing the worst, and with good reason: These are not nice people.

William Friedkin is an important filmmaker.  Looking back on his four decade career he has delivered two truly great films of the American cinema; The French Connection and The Exorcist, the first horror blockbuster which garnered ten Oscar nominations.   Several years ago I had the opportunity of talking to him and I asked how he felt about losing the Best Picture Oscar in 1973 to The Sting.  In his customary Fiery Billy mode, a nickname he earned because of his well-documented temper, he tore into The Sting’s producer, the late Julia Phillips, with such ferocity I recall being taken aback by his frankness.  That was almost twenty years ago.  I mention this for one reason; at the age of seventy-six, Friedkin shows no sign of mellowing.

 Killer Joe is the blackest of black comedies.  There is humor there and some of it may make you laugh louder than any mainstream comedy you’ve seen all year, but there’s a chance you may also choke on that laughter when a moment of unexpected brutality suddenly explodes before you.  Joe Cooper’s style is to lull you into a false sense of security with his slow, southern drawl that can sound both friendly and oddly threatening at the same time, but he follows through with lurid, sexual threats and overly bloody violence.  It’s cinematic sadism to the extreme, and I have a problem with that.

Performances are uniformly good throughout, plus Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography has such great clarity you constantly feel that you’re in the company of solid, professional filmmakers.  The script is by Tracy Letts who adapted his own play and it’s not difficult to determine the film’s theatrical roots.  The crackling dialog is a joy to hear despite being delivered by a group of truly repugnant, uneducated hicks who do and say the wrong thing at every opportunity, but there gets to a point when you’re forced to ask, was it truly necessary to go this far?

 MPAA Rating:  NC-17       Length:  103 minutes     Overall Rating:  5 (out of 10)

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