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Movie Review: Killer Joe

Matthew McConaughey and Juno Temple star in this dark crime thriller set in Texas. Find out if its worth watching.

Let us hope that Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts go on to have a long and fruitful collaboration. Their first film, 2006’s underrated “Bug,” was a masterful and uncompromising examination of paranoia. It was also one of the best psychological horror films of the decade. Now, with “Killer Joe,” Friedkin and Letts have firmly established themselves as the most daring (and most disturbing) writer-director team at work today.

What makes 'Killer Joe' such a fascinating and unnerving film is the sheer amorality of its characters. The Smiths discuss murder as if it were the equivalent of taking the car in for an oil change.

“Killer Joe” is the story of the Smith family, one of the most unsavory collections of reprobates you’ll ever see on film. The Smiths are a desperate, trailer-dwelling stew of venality and dysfunction. Young Chris owes money to some very bad people, and since he knows—or thinks he knows—that his sister Dottie is the beneficiary of his mother’s life insurance policy, he naturally decides to have his mother murdered. Enter Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a police officer who supplements his income by working as a hit man. Chris’s father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) soon learns of the plan, as does Chris’s stepmother, Sharla (Gina Gershon). Then Dottie finds out about it. So now the whole family knows that a murder is about to take place. And no one cares.

What makes “Killer Joe” such a fascinating and unnerving film is the sheer amorality of its characters. The Smiths discuss murder as if it were the equivalent of taking the car in for an oil change. In a brilliant act of misdirection, Friedkin and Letts suggest at the beginning of the film that Dottie will serve as the moral compass of the story. Her waiflike innocence promises—at first, anyway—to provide non-sociopathic audience members with a character they might possibly relate to. But Dottie (Juno Temple, in a mesmerizing performance) turns out to be just as deranged and the rest of her family, albeit in a slightly more childlike way.

Then of course there’s Killer Joe himself. If you plan on seeing this movie, prepare to meet a new Matthew McConaughey. Gone is the shirtless doofus whom half-witted movie heroines just can’t help falling in love with. As Killer Joe, McConaughey is menacing, weird, reckless and calculating all at once. It’s a fascinating character arc: when we first meet Killer Joe, he appears to be the consummate professional, incapable of carelessness, but as soon as he lays eyes on Dottie, his supposed professionalism gradually gives way to a peculiar brand of insanity that cares solely for the gratification of its darkest, most corrupt impulses.

If all of this sounds unbearably dark and unwatchable, I assure you it isn’t. The writing is brilliant, the acting superb and the direction flawless. There are scenes in “Killer Joe” that build such slow, convincing tension you’re likely to find yourself holding your breath without knowing it. There’s a feel to “Killer Joe” that’s hard to pin down. It’s been called a “noir” film, but it employs none of the usual noir visual tropes, and there’s a vaguely surrealistic quality to the proceedings that contradicts the hardboiled realism characteristic of the noir genre.

As an examination of the “dark underbelly” of the American dream, “Killer Joe” is somewhat reminiscent of David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.” But whereas Lynch’s vision has always been suffused with odd metaphysical undercurrents, Friedkin and Letts locate the disruptive power of madness and violence strictly within the realm of human behavior. Their premise appears to be that humankind is bizarre and frightening enough without any help from supernatural forces.

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