Starring Matthew McConaughey and Emile Hirsch comes director William Friedkin’s darker-than-black drama come comedy which is as enjoyable as it is uneasy.
Based upon the Tracy Letts stage play comes the tale of Hirsch’s Chris who is a failing drug dealer and owes money to people that one should not owe money to and comes up with a borderline ridiculous plan to have his Mother killed to claim her life insurance and pay his debts. Enter the eponymous Killer Joe. McConaughy’s Joe requires cash upfront, but as that is not an option, claims Chris’ sister Dottie (the excellent Juno Temple) as “collateral”.
The direction keeps the audience guessing to where the narrative will move next and never lets its audience settle into the film. Given the subject matter and dark nature of the material, a certain distance is needed from the characters. With that being said, the film does at times morph into being very stagey – particularly in its climax.
Friedkin is known for drawing dark performances from his actors and Killer Joe reinforces this. On the evidence of this film, McConaughey’s days of leaning against various things in putrid romantic comedies are through. He delivers a film-carrying performance as Joe. Joe is not quite the villain, but he is certainly no hero and McConaughey straddles this line with deft skill and all the prowess of an actor clearly in love with his role. His unsettling relationship with Dottie is ultimately the center-piece of the film and is made that by the tension between Temple and McConaughey. Temple plays Dottie with the perfect touches of innocence and knowing – one scene in particular when her family is arguing and she is cradled in her room looking at a Cinderella-like figurine, which calls all sorts of imagery to mind.
However, the sexual nature of the film is the inherent problem. The relationship between Dottie and Joe is at best unsettling (undoubtedly Friedkin’s aim) and at worst, simply repulsive. One scene in the film that has gained notoriety is simply not needed. It is obviously a power play however there are much more subtle ways to demonstrate a point or even humiliate a character than the scene presents.
Though there is much right with the film, there are issues that lie within and leave the viewer confounded and questioning the point. A special mention should go to Thomas Haden Church’s Ansel and Gina Gershon’s Sharla (Chris’ Father and Step-Mother) for providing much of the humour (in Church’s case) and dramatic weight (in Gershon’s case). However, with clear skill from the director and quality performances from his actors, Killer Joe ultimately trips over its sexual representation and leaves its audience with a very bitter aftertaste.