We begin and end in a trailer park near Dallas, where the Smiths reside. Chris (Emile Hirsch) no longer lives at home, but he comes back to propose a new plan to his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church). Chris seems to be a new breed of stupid, although the entire family isn’t really on much of a higher intellectual footing than he is – luckily this is never used for comic effect, and the darkly comedic scenes are more about situational irony or black dialogue. Anyway, Chris is in debt to some big-deal drug dealers after his mom gave away some of his stash. He then comes up with the ingenious plan to hire Killer Joe (McConaughey), a Dallas cop and hired hit man, to kill off his mom so that they can collect on her life insurance policy.
When Joe finally enters the scene, McConaughey’s wit, charm, and talent are all exploited to give one of his finest performances to date. Joe is as slimy as he is ruthless, but in his sociopathic manor he dominates any room he occupies, especially when confronted with the collective of trailer-trash that is the Smiths. However, Joe demands payment up-front, and since Chris and Ansel are only hiring Joe because they need money, they obviously are unable to fulfill his first rule. As Joe leaves the meeting he eyes Dottie (Juno Temple), Chris’ younger sister. He proposes that until payment is collected, he take Dottie as collateral – to which is the Smiths seem surprisingly easy to persuade. What follows is a grand mishap, a series of twists, and several smashes, ending in one bang.
Incredibly talented director William Friedkin and famed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel have created an extremely eerie southern setting for this trailer-park murder story. Oil drums burn into the night, dogs snap in the cold rain, and shadows linger in the darkness stalking the characters. Even when inside, the film’s mood is tense and frightfully powerful. The casting has been done terrifically as well, with Hirsch and Church strong and Juno Temple wowing as the naïve and youthfully coy Dottie. Gina Gershon has side role as Ansel’s second wife, and is also terrific. Killer Joe dominates so much of this film in terms of plot and presence, but McConaughey delivers a performance up to the challenge.
Rated NC-17, and with pretty good reason, Killer Joe is grotesque yet funny, sexual yet brutal, and surprising as all get-out. I’m not going to rush to see this film right away again, yet I can’t help but commend the entire cast and crew for their stellar work here. The whole cast is so spot on it really gives the film life, and Friedkin directs with a mystical genius that is horrifyingly effective.