Matthew McConaughey delivers a career-best performance in William Friedkin's brilliantly black tale.
The latest film from William Friedkin has the director back on raw, intense form, with pitch-black humour and a cast straight out of the top drawer. Killer Joe is never quite a comfortable experience, but always a thrilling one.
The story, adapted from Tracey Letts’ stage play, has Chris (Emile Hirsch), a small-time drug dealer, in debt to some local thugs. Seeking a way to make money fast, he enlists his father Ansal (Thomas Hayden Church), sister Dottie (Juno Temple) and his stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) in a plot to cash in on his mother’s life insurance policy. Hiring local hitman “Killer Joe” Cooper (Matthew Mcconaughey), but lacking the money to pay him, the assassin develops an interest in Dottie, leading to a web of crime and debt as events spiral way out of Chris’ control.
The film is propelled by superb performances across the board. Hirsch is wonderfully sleazy and desperate, and Church’s beaten-down, grumbling turn is great. Gershon is similarly having fun in a slippery role, but the best two performances here belong to Temple and McConaughey. Temple is an unsettling performance as the seemingly slow-witted Dottie, a beguiling object of attraction for almost every male figure in the film. Flitting between a naïve charm and a subversive approach to sexual politics, Temple is fascinating to watch in every scene she is in. McConaughey, though, walks away with the best turn in the film, totally breaking type as he slowly, deliberately moves through the film, his down-south drawl barely hiding a simmering, dangerous personality that seems to be bubbling just below full-blown psychosis in almost every sequence.
Indeed, it is this kind of bubbling tension that pervades the film, and as Joe gets more and more involved with the families’ lives, the nerves begin to fray as the intensity builds. “Intense” has been the buzzword so far when discussing Killer Joe, particularly with regard to the lengthy scene at the climax, but it is more through a thickness of atmosphere, a fog of nerves, than any particularly gruesome or unsettling moments. The intensity builds steadily, which make the frequent bursts of dark humour a welcome relief. Finding humour in situations which don’t exactly scream “laugh out loud”, Killer Joe manages to raise a few disbelieving laughs across the runtime, with the humour rising from the characters and events, rather than any straightforward punchlines.
As dark as they come, Killer Joe may not be for everybody, but for sterling character work, a cast on top of their game, and a rawness that is surprising from such a seasoned director, this is an unforgettable experience that really deserves to be seen. Temple is on fine form, but is almost overshadowed by McConaughey, whose performance is quite simply a revelation.