In the dramatic scenes where the central character Joe is introduced, we see only his gloves, and that he is driving. The camera then pans to his cowboy boots and gun. As he steps out of the car and begins walking toward the camera, his face remains shaded by his hat, and his silhouette is stark in the dark afternoon. We immediately get the impression that this man is a dangerous killer, even though we do not see his face. This aura of stereotypical mystery is characteristic of William Friedkin’s new film, Killer Joe, which gives a cynical and satirical meaning to the dark comedy and trailer park genres.
Killer Joe offers a unique and violent blend of these two genres, incorporating elements of the classic murder mystery and detective dramas into what might be best described as a Southern Gothic dark comedy. The film, based on Tracy Letts play of the same name, follows Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), a Texan drug dealer who, upon finding himself in debt, decides to murder his mother for the insurance money. Matthew McConaughey stars in the title role and gives a riveting performance as Joe, a police detective who has a shady side job as a contract killer. Sam hires Joe to kill his mother. However, payment issues, secrets, and betrayals spark a chain of wild and crazy events, as multiple parties violently struggle for control of the money.
Killer Joe is comparable to films like No Country for Old Men, which possess the same dark humor, grit and violence. The line between revenge and justice is blurred. The film satirizes the uneducated trailer park hillbilly, and can as such be read as an allegorical commentary on the agenda that current republican leaders are pursuing regarding terrorism and the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later mentality.
McConaughey is the film’s only fully developed character; Joe has the best lines and most intriguing backstory. Joe, the magnetic murderer, has the only fate that the audience truly cares about, as the rest of the characters are dull, vulgar and stupid. McConaughey thus dominates every scene, all heads in each frame turn to look at him. With a soft but sinister voice, and the controlled physicality and cold dead eyes of a killer, he makes his character memorable. Joe’s character can be compared to that of Lou Ford, the crazed and sadistic sheriff in Jim Thompson’s cult classic, The Killer Inside Me. Like Ford, McConaughey brings this cunning, depraved sociopath with sadistic sexual tastes to life on the big screen, a difficult performance that deserves critical recognition.
Sadly, director William Friedkin, whose previous films include an abundance of action and violence, never really finds his pace in Killer Joe, which switches between realism to absolute surrealism and bizarre pointlessness. However, this oscillation is not all bad, as it adds the necessary elements of dark humor to the film, which keeps it entertaining. So if you are looking to see a contemporary gritty and violent southern murder mystery, then Killer Joe is your film, but be warned. Killer Joe is rated NC-17 for graphic bloody violence, torture and sex; it’s not for the faint-hearted.