Killer Joe (2012)

First published by movieScope


Drawn, like William Friedkin’s previous feature Bug (2006), from a play by Tracy Letts, this bucket of southern gothic is a Coen-esque caper of small-town double-crosses that starts off trailer-trash tawdry, before steadily gearing down into truly unhinged realms—even for the Texas hinterlands.

Owing big-time to a local gangster, Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) persuades dumb-assed dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) that they should have Chris’ monstrous mother murdered for the insurance money. So they hire ‘Killer’ Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) — a coolly courteous police detective and occasional hitman — to do the deed, with the virginity of Chris’ dreamy young sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as collateral, and Ansel’s promiscuous second wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) also in on the arrangement. Yet as the deal sours and passions flare, the Smiths and the latest would-be member of their family are about to settle some scores over ‘K fried’ takeaway.

This jaw-droppingly scabrous tale of abuse, incest and adultery may invite viewers to becoming rubber-necking tourists in the sleaze and squalor of Southern impoverishment, but it is also a drama of Darwinian survival, where no amount of dysfunction and death can deter the reproductive urge. Perfectly performed, and pitched so shrill that you are never sure whether to respond with horror, laughter or despair, Killer Joe culminates in an evocation of the notorious dinner scenes from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Eraserhead, without compromising either’s bizarre shock value.

Anton Bitel