“Killer Joe” – Kill Them All, Already!

Killer Joe

Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011)

As I write this, I have just started watching another film from last year starring Matthew McConaugheyThe Paperboy. I already suspect that it, like Killer Joe, will be stronger on atmosphere than on narrative coherence, plausibility or cinematic enjoyment. I hope I’m wrong.

I did not like Killer Joe, but McConaughey is not the problem. Since starring in The Lincoln Lawyer, McConaughey has shown a willingness to forego nice-guy – or even pretty-guy – roles in favor of characters whose sordid pasts show through his now sagging (yet still handsome) features.

No, the problem is the director, William Friedkin, and the writer, Tracy Letts. This is the second collaboration between them. The first was Bug, which was even more unpleasant a film than it was a stage play. To say that Killer Joe is the better of the two films is hardly a compliment. It’s like comparing carrion and dung: which do you prefer?

Ah, how I miss the Billy Friedkin of the 1970s, the man who gave us The French Connection and The Exorcist. Hell, even The Brink’s Job was pretty watchable. And as far as high-octane thrillers go, it’s hard to beat To Live and Die in L.A. – that car chase up the wrong side of the freeway was masterful in its intensity.

But the early successes caught up to Friedkin, and through a combination of alleged drug and alcohol abuse and other bad choices, he seemed to squander his talent. I’ll always be grateful to him for what he meant to the film culture of the Hollywood New Wave, but I just can’t stand his output anymore.

Killer Joe starts out promisingly enough. Chris Smith (an annoying Emile Hirsch), a working-class stiff and part-time drug dealer, and none too bright, decides to hire a contract killer (whose day job is being a police detective) to dispose of his mother, Adele, who, he thinks, has stolen from him (an act which has put him in trouble with some local gangsters). His father, Ansel (a great Thomas Haden Church) – long divorced from Adele – his sister, Dottie (a creepy doll-like Juno Temple), and his Stepmom Sharla (a horribly abused Gina Gershon), all, one by one, join the conspiracy. And why not, Adele’s life insurance policy will supposedly pay out enough money to solve all of their problems.

When Killer Joe (McConaughey) shows up, however, the stupidity of everyone involved quickly becomes apparent, and Joe refuses the job. Until he gets a good look at the child-woman Dottie and decides that maybe she’s worth breaking some rules for.

And that about sums up the set-up. What follows is a series of increasingly ugly scenes that make you wish that everyone in the film would die. They don’t deserve to live. They are dumb, nasty and without any redeeming qualities. To top it all off, Friedkin seems to take a strong pleasure in forcing us to watch the physical degradation of his female characters.

So why watch their story? Unless you’re a diehard McConaughey fan and want to see him give a good performance in a bad movie, my suggestion is to . . . not watch their story.

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