Killer Joe

Thomas Haden Church and Matthew McConaughey in “Killer Joe”

Fried chicken, beer, monster trucks, a trailer home, a hired killer, a crazy family and numerous other white trash elements provide the ambiance for the tense, violent, darkly comic, movie version of Tracy Letts’ play “Killer Joe.”  The film has been directed by William Friedkin (“The French Connection” 1971, “The Exorcist” 1973, “To Live and Die in LA” 1985).  Friedkin sure could use a hit and I think, after many years, he has one here, albeit on a smaller scale than some of his past films.

“Killer Joe” is that rare example of the movie version exceeding the play.  I saw the play many years ago.  It starred Scott Glenn and Michelle Williams.  They were fine, but “Killer Joe” the movie, has a killer cast (sorry, couldn’t resist) in Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon.  The story, which in the theatre all took place in the living room of a trailer home, has been nicely opened up with the proceedings taking place in many locations, all of which contribute to the atmosphere of the piece.

As for the story, it is one of a simple plan that goes terribly wrong.  “Killer Joe” reminded me of many other films, while, at the same time, maintaining its originality.  I think this is due to the story’s tone which Letts, who also wrote the screenplay, is able to skillful shift back and forth from suspense, to comedy, to film noir, to sheer terror and violence.

The films that “Killer Joe” brings to mind are “Blood Simple” (1984), “Red Rock West” (1993), “A Simple Plan” (1998), and director Sidney Lumet’s final film, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007).  I recall seeing Lumet at an event honoring his work, which took place the night before “Devil” opened.  He talked about how he likes to make films about people doing things for the first time.  A look at Lumet’s filmography reveals that this is true of quite a few of his movies.   To bring this back to “Killer Joe,” it is the story of a young man, Chris Smith (Hirsch), a drug dealer down on his luck.  Chris hires the titular hit man, a first time venture, to kill his no good mother, in order to get her life insurance money.  Yes, the  premise is  certainly cringe worthy, especially when Chris involves his father Ansel (Church), his sister Dottie (Temple) and Sharla (Gershon), Ansel’s live in girlfriend, in the scheme.  At the same time Letts’ carefully constructed story and well placed expositional dialogue lulls us into accepting the premise by the way the mother, a largely off camera presence, is so carefully, and negatively, portrayed.  The audience is turned into an accomplice while alliances are made and broken.  Slowly but inevitably, all Hell breaks loose.

McConaughey’s performance, as the title character is tight, frightening and controlled.  Hirsch is comically desperate and gullible as Chris, who only thinks he has his bases covered.  Temple’s performance as Dottie, the human retainer against Joe’s killer fee is appropriately innocent, nubile and naïve.  Gershon and Church round out the cast as a letter perfect white trash couple in over their heads.

Be warned, “Killer Joe” is not for everyone.  However those who dare to enter this world will be rewarded with a horrifically funny, sardonically bloody, and ultimately satisfying, tale.

“Killer Joe” director William Friedkin, 2012,

LD Entertainment, 103 minutes, rated NC-17

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About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on August 7, 2012, in New and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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