William Friedkin’s ‘Killer Joe’ is one of the most shocking, vile, disgusting, sick and twisted piece of white-trash film noir that I have ever seen. I think it’s also one of the best films of the year.
The film revolves around 21 year old Chris Smith (played with hyperactive intensity by Emile Hirsch) who attempts to clear himself of a mountain of debt by hiring a hit-man to kill his estranged mother, in order to collect $50,000 of insurance money. With a gang of loan sharks threatening to take his life, time is an issue. Chris runs the game plan by his father, Ansel, at the local strip joint, and while the dim-witted man is hesitant at first, he ultimately agrees that it would be a great idea. The next day, Chris hires “Killer” Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to pull off the hit. Joe is a detective by day, as well as a hit man on the side. He asks for an advance payment of $25,000, but Chris is unable to pay. As a result, Joe takes Chris’ twenty year old sister, Dottie, as a “retainer” until he receives his money. Ansel’s wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) is hesitant at first, as she doesn’t trust Chris due to his history of unreliability; however, she decides to play along. There will be a huge payoff, after all.
In the meantime, Joe and Dottie enter into a sexual relationship and become quite fond of one another. This agitates Chris to no end, and before the credits roll, everything goes straight to hell in a blood-soaked, much talked about finale.
Make no mistake – this film earns the NC-17 rating and then some. It is not for the faint of heart or the easily offended. The notorious “chicken leg” scene is just as abhorrent and disturbing as you have probably heard, and serves as the sole reason behind the NC-17 rating. William Friedkin is on top of his game here and pulls no punches. The sordid lives of these disgusting characters are graphically brought to the screen, written by Tracey Letts’ in an adaptation of his stage play. This Southern Gothic noir is beautifully shot by Caleb Deschanel, and the score by Tyler Bates is appropriately twangy and unsettling.
The performances are uniformly amazing. McConaughey is at the top of his game here. This is an Oscar worthy performance, unlike anything that the actor has ever accomplished before. Gina Gershon is incredible in her role as the double-crossing Sharla. Juno Temple is in full-on Lolita-mode as Dottie, creating a complex character with many unpredictable quirks. Thomas Hayden Church plays against type as the stupid, southern-fried redneck, Ansel. Finally, Emile Hirsch is fantastic as Chris, delivering his best performance since his underrated contribution to ‘Milk’.
‘Killer Joe’ is a fantastic film, but once again, it is only for the brave. The faint-hearted and easily offended are advised to steer clear.
‘Killer Joe’ is 1 hour and 45 minutes, rated NC-17 for “graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality”, released by Lionsgate. Available on Blu-ray and DVD.