Film review: Killer Joe (18)

ON A dark and stormy night in a Dallas trailer park, a tethered dog yaps furiously at a late-night visitor. It’s the first of William Friedkin’s grim little jokes, because in the off-kilter universe of Killer Joe, everyone is barking.


Director: William Friedkin

Running time: 102 minutes

Take the Smith family, a dysfunctional quartet who would make Jeremy Kyle rub his hands in glee. Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a loser in serious hock to the wrong kind of people. His mother Adele has just kicked him out of the house, and he arrives at the trailer of his none-too-bright father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and his slutty stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) to propose they murder his mother and split her life insurance policy.

Even hicks like the Smiths realise that the finger of suspicion would rapidly fall on them, so they decide to hire a professional to handle this matricide, a lawman called Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), who will turn hitman if the price is right. Unfortunately the Smiths don’t even have the money for a down payment on his $25,000 fee, but Joe is willing to take a retainer in the form of Chris’s virginal little sister Dottie (Juno Temple), who is pretty but also a little brain damaged. It says a lot about Killer Joe that it is hard to distinguish innocence from passivity here.

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With his heavy-lidded eyes and verbal seductiveness, McConaughey is like a Jacobean villain, but in a universe without any sense of right or wrong, Killer Joe himself is the closest thing to a moral centre – or at least a code. He’s polite, groomed and able to see a course of action through to the end. When Dottie first meets him, she connects him with TV private eye Mannix. “I’m real,” Joe responds.

Such distinctions are important in this blurry, pulpy world, and when McConaughey seduces her in a riveting scene of cat-and-mouse showmanship, it’s subversively erotic. McConaughey arrived in Hollywood in a blaze of absurd hype as the new Paul Newman, but with The Lincoln Lawyer and Killer Joe he seems to have found his groove as the kind of guy Paul Newman would cross the street to avoid. Juno Temple is equally eye-catching, but I hope that Gershon and Haden Church both get a boost from Killer Joe too. Gershon has been oddly under-used since her ironic bisexual diva in Showgirls, whilst Haden Church’s doped weariness generates much of this film’s surprising comedy.

Playwright Tracy Letts worked with Friedkin on Bug, and his characters seldom invite your sympathy, but they are riveting all the same. Letts also has a terrific ear for laconic, idiosyncratic dialogue, like Quentin Tarantino boiled up with Sam Shepard, so he makes you laugh, though you may feel guilty later.

Killer Joe is a piece of southern gothic that has the corkscrew turns of a mainstream thriller, but it’s the shifting, hyped-up relationships that keep you hooked, along with the way it toys with ornaments of American life from the family unit to southern fried chicken.

The film is such heightened guignol that Friedkin pretty much gets away with some full-on battering, and some very confrontational nudity. It’s not entirely gratuitous, and it’s there to augment the film’s casually creepy tone. I don’t think anyone will want to go clothes shopping with Friedkin after this; in Killer Joe you see more of nearly everyone than you need to, and you don’t feel good about it.

• On general release from Friday

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