out of Five
Running time: 103
Enjoyably pulpy Southern-fried thriller with a strong script and terrific performances from a superb cast, though it occasionally struggles to escape its stage-bound origins.
What's it all about?
Directed by William Friedkin, Killer Joe is based on the play by Tracy Letts (in his second collaboration with Friedkin, following 2006's Bug) and stars Emile Hirsch as Chris, a trailer trash ne'er-do-well who gets into heavy debt with a local gangster (Marc Macaulay) and persuades his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) to hire a hitman in order to kill his ex-wife for the insurance money. With Chris' little sister Dottie (Juno Temple) set as the beneficiary, Ansel duly agrees, but not before his vampish new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) has demanded her cut. However, when Chris and Ansel hire detective-slash-hitman Joe (Matthew McConaughey), they're unable to raise the money to pay him up front, so Joe demands Dottie as his retainer and effectively moves into the trailer in order to be with her.
The performances are terrific, particularly McConaughey, who plays on his usual smooth talking charm to extremely chilling effect. Temple is equally good as the seemingly innocent Dottie, whose burgeoning sexuality is exploited by pretty much everyone in the film; her scenes with McConaughey are both shocking and disturbing to watch. There's also strong support from both Hirsch (scrappy, motor-mouthed) and Haden Church (taking his usual laid back persona to an amusing extreme), while Gina Gershon is superb as Sharla, particularly in the final act.
Sight and Sound's Jonathan Romney described Killer Joe as being “pitched between Jim Thompson and Tennesse Williams” and that's more or less spot-on, with Friedkin combining both the pulpy, Southern-fried thriller elements of Thompson and the heady sexual undercurrents of Williams, to frequently delirious, deliciously overwrought effect.
Friedkin maintains tight control of the material throughout, culminating in a terrifically tense and powerfully shocking final act that takes place around the dinner table: one particularly memorable moment involves Joe, Sharla and a piece of fried chicken, in an extremely dark, horrifically uncomfortable and deeply weird scene that's surely headed for cult status.
If there's a problem with the film, it's only that it occasionally struggles to escape its stage-bound origins, to the point where, if you didn't know beforehand that it was based on a play, you'd be in no doubt by the end.
While almost certainly not to everyone's taste, Killer Joe is an enjoyably pulpy and gleefully twisted thriller with a strong script and terrific performances from Matthew McConaughey and Juno Temple. One thing's for certain – you'll never look at a piece of fried chicken the same way again.