I can easily imagine a lot of people loving Killer Joe due to its dark, twisty-turny plot, while a lot of others will also thrill to the pitch black humour. However there are a lot who will find the whole thing rather nasty, cruel and repellent, so if you think you might be one of those people, you’ll probably be best to avoid this. However if you do like thrillers that go to the most sordid of places, you may well love this.
Chris (Emile Hirsch) is in need of cash and so embroils his brother, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), in a plot to kill their heartless mother. They’re going to hire a lawman called Joe (Matthew McConaughey) who moonlights as a hired killer. It’s going to cost $25,000, but Chris has heard his mum has a $50,000 life insurance policy that will pay out to his sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). Joe wants to be paid upfront, but agrees he’ll have Dottie as a kind of retainer. However nobody has thought things out very well and things soon spiral out of control, especially when they realise just what a mean character Joe is.
There’s a bit of a tradition in Southern gothic noir – which this certainly fits within – that there’s no such thing as the worst that can happen. Just as you think events must have reached their nadir, Killer Joe is keen to say you ain’t seen nothing yet. The film’s greatest success is flirting around the line between funny and truly nasty. There are moments where you can’t help but see the humourous side, even if what’s on screen is actually really unpleasant. There’s one scene in particular involving a chicken drumstick that is on the surface absolutely horrible and is essentially a rape scene, but it’s all so bizarre, over-the-top and a tad surreal, you’re likely to laugh if only to break the tension.
These are amoral people doing nasty things and the results are harsh. The only one with genuine redeeming qualities is Dottie, who seems to have been so screwed by her upbringing she flits between complete naiveté and worrying knowingness. Even with her there’s a constant edge of not knowing what you should think, as while she’s played by 23-year-old British actress Juno Temple, she’s presumably meant to be a lot younger (she tell Joe she’s 12), which makes her relationship with Joe – and the fact her brothers are more than willing to pimp her out to him – all the more disturbing.
There’s occasionally a slightly disturbing sense that this is a film about taking pleasure in the pain of people who are too stupid for their own good, but as they’re doing incredibly nasty things that they know aren’t right, you won’t be losing much sleep over it. It’s certainly a step up for William Friedkin, who once thrilled audience with The Exorcist and The French Connection, but who more recently has had a sporadic resume on not 100% successful movies like The Hunted and Bug. With its crunching violence, edgy sexuality and no hold barred plot, you may feel a bit dirty after watching Killer Joe, but you’ll probably have a good time.
Overall Verdict: A truly nasty film, with violence and sex that will turn many off, but with the darkest sense of humour, a rip-roaring pace and some very good acting, a lot of people will love this blackest of noirs.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac