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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 33.33%
Average: 12.5%
Pretty Bad: 4.17%
Total Crap: 0%

3 reviews, 6 user ratings

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Killer Joe
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by Peter Sobczynski

5 stars

"Killer Joe" is a film that asks viewers to devote two hours of their lives to watching a family of white trash morons screaming at each other while plotting against each other in ways that leave nearly all of them covered in blood, saliva, chicken grease and other unsavory fluids by the time its jaw-dropping finale rolls around. Under normal circumstances, this is not the sort of thing that I would consider to be the recipe for real entertainment because unless the Three Stooges are involved (and even then, pretty much only through the Shemp era), watching a bunch of idiots doing idiotic things with grisly and horrific results tends to get a little tedious after a while. Personally, I am more intrigued by seeing people who are smart get themselves embroiled in situations that quickly and logically spiral out of control into blood-soaked lunacy than in watching dummies flailing around while coating the camera lens in snot and spittle. However, I am willing to adjust my way of thinking in this regard as long as the film under discussion is smarter, cleverer and more resourceful than its characters at its center and that is certainly the case with "Killer Joe," an alternately horrifying and hilarious piece of deep-fried Grand Guignol that will have audiences staggering out of the theater as though they have just been punched it the gut. The only question is whether that will be after the 10-minute mark or after the end credits because I suspect that for virtually everyone who sees it, it will be one or the other.

Meet the Smiths, a family of trailer-park habitués who make the locals in "Deliverance" seem like the residents of Downton Abbey by comparison. The patriarch is Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), a good-ol'-boy gone to seed who appears to be in a constant fog of befuddlement thanks to what appears to be a nightly regime of pot, televised pro wrestling and the cheapest domestic beer available. Ansel's policy towards beer apparently extends towards women as well, as judged by second wife Sharla (Gina Gershon), a small-town slattern who is reaching the end of her prime but who still maintains enough sex appeal to cloud the judgement of most men and who, as becomes abundantly clear in the opening moments of the film, still knows how to make a memorable entrance and how. Chris (Emile Hirsch) is Ansel's older child and a chip off the same rancid block in the way that he spends his days slaving a way at a dead-end job and his nights drinking, drugging and getting embroiled in hair-brained get-rich-quick schemes that inevitably have him running from goons in the employ of those he has angered along the way. Finally, there is younger child Dottie (Juno Temple), a starry-eyed-dreamer type who is about 20 or so but who sometimes acts like a little kid, perhaps as the result of her mother having attempted to smother her to death as an infant. Nevertheless, if push came to shove, she could probably still qualify for the position of the brains of the family if she wanted.

The one thing that seems to unite this group is their shared loathing of the unseen woman who was Ansel's first wife and the mother of his children. Although Dottie seems relatively benign about the whole attempted smothering thing, she clearly isn't much of a fan. Ansel hates her in the way that any man hates his ex-wife while Sharla more or less hates her on general principles. It is Chris, however, who is the least fond of her--not only has she kicked him out of their home so that she can spend more time with her new boyfriend, she has made several surreptitious withdrawals from his cocaine stash and left him with barely any for himself. This is a problem because Chris had been planning on selling the drugs in order to repay a gambling debt to a local gangster and if he doesn't fork over the cash soon, he will most likely be killed. Desperate, Chris hits upon what he thinks is a brilliant idea. It seems that Mom has an insurance policy worth $50,000 for which Dottie is the sole beneficiary--if he hires a hit man to kill her, Dottie will collect the money and they can all split it up. Of course, hit men cost money but Chris has that all figured out as well--they can pay him out of the insurance payout because everyone knows how patient those people are when it comes to being recompensed for their work.

Into their lives comes Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a steely-eyed hired killer who is not only extremely good at his job but who also works as a police detective on the side. He is willing to do the job, of course, but he wants $25,000 for the job and has no interest in waiting around for the insurance claim to go through to collect his payment. However, by the time he meets with Chris and Ansel to discuss terms, he has already met and become instantly besotted with Dottie. As a result, a deal is made--Joe will do the murder and wait for the payment but until he receives his fee, he will take possession of Dottie as a "retainer" for his services. Despite the fact that this essentially means selling his sister into sexual slavery for an end payout that, after Joe is paid off and the remainder is divvied up, is not going to add up to very much, Chris agrees to the deal, though he is a bit slow when it comes to informing Dottie of her unwitting contributions to the plot. From this point on, it is best to leave the ensuing twists and turns to be discovered for yourself except to note that the relationship between Joe and Dottie develops in unexpected ways and it all leads to a final dinner scene that makes the climactic meal in the original "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" come across as quiet and dignified by comparison.

With its volatile combination of redneck culture, savage violence and borderline perverse sexuality, "Killer Joe" may remind some viewers of the always-audacious works of the late, great Russ Meyer--the plot is pretty much a kissing cousin to the immortal "Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" and one can almost picture the likes of Charles Napier and Tura Satana as Joe and Sharla, for example. In fact, it comes from the mind of award-winning playwright Tracy Letts, who adapted it from his first produced work, and has been brought to the screen by none other than William Friedkin, the man behind such classics as "The French Connection," "Sorcerer" and "To Live and Die in L.A." I haven't seen "Killer Joe" on the stage but based on the material, it strikes me as the kind of play that probably works quite well on the stage--largely due to the headlong energy of the performers and the collective audience reaction to the sights that they are witnessing--but which doesn't necessarily translate well into cinematic terms, as the few people who saw "Carnage," Roman Polanski's hugely disappointing adaptation of the hit play "God of Carnage" can attest. However, the combination of Letts and Friedkin, who previously collaborated on the electrifying 2006 screen version of Letts' "Bug," has helped the material overcome that pitfall thanks to the particular elements that each one brings to thee proceedings. As previously mentioned, this was Letts' first produced play and it still maintains some of the rough narratives patches and too-spot-on bits of dialogue that are indicative of a debut work. At the same time, it also has the fearsome energy and audaciousness that sometimes crops up in a first work--that sense of getting everything you want to say out all at once because you might never get the chance to do so again--and Letts has been able to recapture this spirit in bringing it to the screen nearly 20 years after it first emerged. And in Friedkin, Letts has found the perfect person to bring his work to the screen because he is a director who is at once as classically skilled in the key elements of filmmaking as any elder statesman worth his salt and as zealous and headstrong in his zeal to put across even the wildest and most potentially troubling aspects as any newcomer hoping to make an impression on their audience. It may seem odd to consider the fact that the man who once made such sprawling films as "The French Connection" and "Sorcerer" is now directing adaptations of plays but trust me, this film is just as gripping and intense as anything else that he has every done.

With the exception of Emile Hirsch, who tends to come across as just a little too irritating for his own good at certain points (to be fair, however, he is meant to be the single stupidest and most unlikable character in a film chock-full of them and this may therefore seem like less of a demerit to other viewers), the performances are all excellent--Thomas Haden Church is hilarious in his depiction of the cataclysmically clueless Ansel, Juno Temple manages to bring a weird combination of satire and ethereal grace (or as close to such a thing as possible under the circumstances) to a role that could have easily come across as a bad joke and Gina Gershon once again proves herself to be one of our most fearless actresses here by participating in a couple of scenes that most performers would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid appearing in. Despite their contributions, the film is pretty much stolen outright by Matthew McConaughey, whose performance single-handedly wipes away the memory of all those crappy romantic comedies and limp action films that he squandered his talents on for far too long. It would have been easy to portray Joe as being just as crude and crazy as everyone else in the story and in the right hands, that might have been effective enough to work. However, by playing Joe as calm and reserved even while he is more than giving the other characters a run for their money in the depravity sweepstakes, it makes his actions both horrifying to contemplate and fascinating to watch. Some have gone so far as to compare his work here to what Robert Mitchum and Dennis Hopper did, respectively, in "The Night of the Hunter" and "Blue Velvet" and while that is as high of a compliment as any actor could hope for, it kind of sells what McConaughey does here a little short because his performance is a true original and is certain to go down as one of the best in a MVP year that has already seen him delivering acting gold in such films as "Bernie" and "Magic Mike."

If I had to pick between the two, I have to admit that I would probably choose the sadly underrated "Bug" over "Killer Joe" for a couple of minor reasons--the staggering performances from Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon in the former and a couple of mistaken attempts to open up the stage-bound material in the latter, especially a sequence in which Chris is chased down by goons that literally goes nowhere and depletes some of the head of steam that the film had been building up until then. For the most part, however, "Killer Joe" is a fascinating piece of dark and decidedly adult entertainment (the film does carry the notorious NC-17 rating and I assure you that it more than earns it) that serves as another reminder that William Friedkin, when working with worthwhile material and not nonsense involving killer trees or Shaq, is still capable of conjuring up work as searing and memorable as the films with which he first made his name. However, if you are weak of heart, faint of constitution or have a general aversion to ickiness, both real and metaphorical, you should probably give this one a pass and how. For the rest of you hardy folk, be prepared to bear witness to some amazing performances, a story that not only takes viewers to dark, dark places but practically revels in doing so and a finale that deploys a piece of fried chicken in such a nightmarish manner that it may well drive most viewers to eating exclusively at Arby's for the next month or so. Okay, maybe I am exaggerating a bit in regards to the Arby's stuff but regardless, watching "Killer Joe" is definitely an experience and if you can make it through to the end, you are likely to be as knocked out by it as I was.

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originally posted: 08/03/12 11:06:15
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 68th Venice International Film Festival For more in the 68th Venice International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2012 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2012 series, click here.

User Comments

12/28/14 Langano Finger lickin' good. 3 stars
10/24/13 Monday Morning Feelgood family movie of the year! 4 stars
2/27/13 David Hollingsworth Too weird, but not as bad. 3 stars
1/06/13 mr.mike Doesnt add up to much. 3 stars
12/23/12 action movie fan friedkins folly could have been much better 2 stars
9/11/12 damalc original and tense 4 stars
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  27-Jul-2012 (NC-17)
  DVD: 21-Dec-2012



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