Filmmaker William Friedkin has always been a provocative filmmaker. From child horrors in "The Exorcist" to the bad side of the law via "To Live and Die in L.A.," Friedkin has never been one to shy away from strong subject matter. His new film "Killer Joe" is no exception, going unconventionally far in its desire to immerse the audience in the dark worlds presented. Problem is that the films’ uneven tone and shaky writing end up making the most of the salacious bits of "Killer Joe" feel like they’re simply present for one purpose – shock value.
Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is a young man who has not made a ton of great choices. He fights with his divorced parents, their new mates too and to top it off he owes money to a local drug dealer. Determined to get out from under, he decides he needs to cash in on his mother’s fifty thousand dollar life insurance policy...by having her killed. He seeks the help of local Dallas cop and hitman-for-hire Joe Cooper, who guarantees the job done. Only problem is Chris doesn’t have the money upfront to pay Joe, but the creepy cop comes up with a temporary solution – use Chris’s young and innocent sister Dottie as collateral.
There are some effective zany, crazy and downright eerie moments in "Killer Joe," but unfortunately they’re few and far between. Working again from a play by writer Tracy Letts, Friedkin has the same problems with script that he did when the two previously collaborated on the arduous staging of "Bug," namely that there are interesting bits that don't equal a single cohesive movie that holds up. Meaning for every effectively creepy McConaughey moment (the seduction of Dottie is particularly disturbing!) there’s an equal inane one with the ever-dim character playing Thomas Haden Church. Plus I never endorse the use of vile and crude just to be shocking and Killer Joe proudly throws in such scenery just to get under the skin. (And remember folks – I’m a fan of the over-the-top Greenaway classic "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover!") Bottomless hairy female parts and oral fried chicken sodomy are just a few of the sad attention getting devices used by Letts to mask the fact that the script is lacking. All the actors try to punch up the sometimes stagnate material, but most appear to be struggling before our eyes. Hirsch and Church both phone in their forgettable roles, Gina Gershon is utterly wasted as a glorified Friedkin punching bag and even McConaughey’s eerie act gets tired fast. (And this is not his best work – for that try "Reign of Fire" folks!) In fact the only bright shining light in this dark mess is the lovely Juno Temple as the innocent Dottie. Fresh from her work as the cocky and confident gal of "Dirty Girl," Temple sheds all to reveal a girl who is oblivious to the ills around her – it’s inspiring stuff.
I get that there aren’t a lot of flicks that provide a gritty looks at life anymore, but we have to be careful to not give praise solely on just the use of such tactics. "Killer Joe" is a film that tries to mask its faults by highlighting the intense and uncomfortable, but when such scenes don’t mesh with the story being told, it’s like putting a band-aid on a severed arm – messy, unsightly and unfun.
Title: "Killer Joe"
Stars: 2 1/2
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple
Director: William Friedkin
Running Time: 103 Minutes
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