Killer Joe


I keep coming back to the sound as he clicks open his lighter. The noise is dramatically enhanced to be louder than anything else happening in a scene, such that even onscreen dialogue spoken by other characters is overshadowed by the malevolent clicking. Click, click, click. That’s Joe Cooper, a Dallas detective moonlighting as a contract killer.

Killer Joe is adapted from a Tracy Letts’ stage play of the same name, and the film reveals its theatrical basis by focusing on dialogue-heavy scenes contained in single, distinct locations. Most of the film takes place in the Smith family trailer, and it’s easy to imagine the film taking place onstage.

Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is a small-time drug dealer who owes $6,000 to his supplier. His ingenious plan to clear his debt? Hire “Killer” Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to kill his mother and collect the money on her life insurance policy. He convinces his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), to join him in the scheme. They’re the most hapless and unprofessional of would-be conspirators. When they first arrange a meeting with Joe, neither Chris nor Ansel show up to the agreed-upon meeting place. Instead, they call Joe (after he’s arrived) to meet them at a second location. It’s a pretty clear indication that this scheme will go awry. The second indication is that Chris and Ansel don’t have the money to pay Joe’s sizable upfront sum. So Joe makes an alternate arrangement: a “retainer” in the form of Chris’ sister and Ansel’s daughter: Dottie (Juno Temple).

Actors playing against type almost always shocks audiences. We’re used to seeing the same actors in specific types of roles, which provides a simple shorthand to understand the basic machinations of the plot. If Tom Hanks pops up in a film, we can rely on our knowledge of his filmography to assume he’ll be playing the good-natured everyman. Whereas if Danny Trejo appears in a film, he’s generally an intimidating bad-ass, and often a criminal one at that. But when actors play against their image, especially the “good-guy” actors playing bad, the results are chilling. Denzel Washington won an Oscar for doing exactly that in Training Day, and Henry Fonda obliterated his wholesome image when he gunned down a child in Once Upon a Time in the West. In Killer Joe, McConaughey plays a wholly unredeemable and disreputable character with his trademark Texan charm. It’s an effective choice. His golden drawl and assured confidence are used to mask a depraved and lecherous character.

Besides McConaughey, Thomas Haden Church really stands out as the dimwitted Ansel. He’s a lumbering hulk, but he’s unintelligent and passive. It’s especially noticeable because the character simply repeats lines of dialogue that others have told him. He’s like a blank slate waiting for others to impress their ideas on him. And Church really sells the role.

Killer Joe has great performances, but it takes place against a backdrop of depravity, statutory rape, murder, despicable characters and brutal violence. Oh, and fried chicken. Definitely not for everyone, and in my opinion, one viewing was more than enough.

Grade: B-


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