Killer Joe: review
Matricide, graphic violence, incestual desire, assassin-detectives and bizarre sexual activity all feature in Killer Joe, the deranged new film by veteran director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection). It’s certainly not the kind of film to watch with your grandparents, but it makes for very entertaining viewing, albeit one without much beneath its sordid surface.
The characters at the centre of the story give new meaning to the phrase ‘dysfunctional family’; the film opens with Chris (Emile Hirsch) banging on the door of his step-mother’s (Gina Gershon) trailer demanding to be let in, and upon entering finds himself in a vicious argument with her that culminates in him wishing her dead. Soon, he is casually proposing to his father (Thomas Haden Church) the idea of killing his mother in order to claim her life insurance that the youngest in the family Dottie (Juno Temple) is entitled to, something he too fails to find morally repugnant.
To carry out the murder they look to hire Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a detective who lives a secret double life as an assassin. Played exceptionally by the unlikely McConaughey, this character is the star of the show, a cold, well-mannered, enigmatic man with an inner-madness and perversity bubbling under his smooth-cowboy outer layer that threatens to violently force itself out. He reminds us that for all the fictional glamorisation of such character types, a detective who is frequently put in charge of cases in which he is the murderer is likely to be somewhat unhinged.
When the family fail to come up with the money upfront Joe refuses to make the deal, until he asks for the use of the young Dottie, who he has taken a shine to, as a ‘retainer’. In such a morally bankrupt family, you can imagine what the two of them decide to do. Juno Temple as Dottie is, like McConaughey, excellent in her role, portraying painfully well a naive, damaged young girl. Dottie is the symbol of purity in the sinful family, often dressed in white, only twelve years old and too immature to conduct the evil schemes of her relations.
With its gritty tone and drama Killer Joe is reminiscent of the likes of No Country for Old Men, There Will be Blood and True Grit, but whereas these films were more complex and subtle in their handling of themes, Killer Joe functions more as a straightforward in-your-face dark thriller. Despite early indications that notions of incest and multiple personalities were to be explored, the film fails to follow through on them and instead concentrates its appeal on its compelling plot, suspense, and fantastically acted grotesque characters. This is not to its discredit however, as it is, despite some gruesome and distinctly unwatchable scenes, a very watchful and involving film, the kind you enjoy in spite of yourself.