‘Are you going to kill her? You can’t even tell time’ is a line from the film that sums up ‘Killer Joe’ perfectly; a family of hopeless deadbeats attempting to cheat and deceive each other unsuccessfully and who are eventually outwitted by an outsider. Matthew McConaughey is unnervingly convincing as the titular character, an unhinged cop and part time rent-a-killer on the side. Joe is hired by Chris, played by Emile Hirsch, a small time drug dealer who finds himself in debt to a rather scary drug lord. The only way he can think of getting his hands on some money is by hiring Joe to kill his mother, who just so happens to have a $50,000 life insurance policy. The audience never meet the mother but are told she is an alcoholic and has stolen Chris’ stash of drugs, so killing her isn’t that despicable right? And so with the help of his feeble-minded father and coarse step-mother the plan is put into place.
It is McConaughey’s performance in William Friedkin’s screen adaptation of the Tracy Lett’s stage play ‘Killer Joe’ which is the backbone of this film. Moving away from the throw-away rom-coms for which he is best known has revealed him to be a truly talented actor. Juno Temple is equally brilliant in the film, playing the virginal Dottie, little sister to Chris and apple of the dysfunctional family’s eye. Doe eyed and baby faced, Temple plays the role perfectly, transitioning from heart-warmingly vulnerable to eerily vacant to startlingly observant in the blink of an eye. There is a nagging suspicion throughout the film that there is something not quite right with Dottie that is made all the more concrete with the line ‘unless something makes me angry,’ said in response to her brother assuring her everything will be alright.
The best scenes within the film are unarguably those between Joe and Dottie and it’s a shame these characters aren’t explored further. In fact, none of the other characters are fully explored throughout the film either and it could be argued that this makes a general statement; that there is nothing more to them. It is because of this, teamed with their questionable morals and degenerate behaviour, that the audience has little sympathy for whatever horrors befall them. This also helps distance the audience from the sickeningly, albeit stylised, violent scenes, of which there are a fair few, which makes them a little easier to stomach along with the disturbing sexual scenes. It is these scenes which have caused people to discern the film as controversial but they are the scenes in which McConaughey is most astounding, oozing sexual menace and leaving the audience feeling dirty. Especially one such scene involving a fried chicken leg.
It is a film that is filled with sexual and violent exploitation that doesn’t fully mask its shortcomings but is nevertheless daring and clever in parts. The script is outright funny in places which stops the overall tone of the film becoming too bleak and yet is dark enough to leave you with a slightly uneasy feeling, asking ‘what the hell did I just watch?’