Theatrical Release Date: July 27, 2012 (Limited)
Distribution Company: Lionsgate
Directed by: William Friedkin
Written By: Tracy Letts
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon, & Thomas Haden Church
Running Time: 102 minutes
When 22-year-old Chris (Emile Hirsch) finds himself in debt to a drug lord, he hires a hit man to dispatch his mother, whose $50,000 life insurance policy benefits his sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Chris finds Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a creepy, crazy Dallas cop who moonlights as a contract killer. When Chris can’t pay Joe upfront, Joe sets his sight on Dottie as collateral for the job. The contract killer and his hostage develop an unusual bond. Like from a modern-day, twisted fairy tale, “Killer Joe” Cooper becomes the prince to Dottie’s Cinderella.
Any regular reader of Backwoods Horror knows that, while horror is our usual thing, we absolutely dig on films that fall under the genre we like to call “Dirty South,” a version of the Southern Gothic genre. If there’s ever been a film more befitting of being called a “Dirty South” movie, it’s KILLER JOE. I know it’s not overtly professional to say as such, but I LOVE this film.
KILLER JOE has to be one of the darkest, grittiest “dirty south” films I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen more than my fair share (POOR PRETTY EDDIE comes to mind). It’s rare when a film comes along where the perfect combination of direction and acting converge to make a (well almost) perfect film. Friedkin did a fantastic job, between the use of film stock, filters (giving the feeling of a gritty, almost 70’s grindhouse film), excellent shot composition, and locations (though set in Texas, Friedkin masterfully found perfectly decrepit locations throughout Louisiana), I actually became immersed in the film (not something that usually happens to this somewhat jaded reviewer). Perhaps it has something to do with me coming from an incredibly rural part of the South, parts of this film looked as though they could’ve been taken right out of life as it is today in some places down there – harsh…cruel…dirty.
The acting was phenomenal in this film. Thankfully, part of the cast actually is from Texas, and the accents, usually overblown and unbelievable in most films set in the South, were believable, a fantastic choice on the part of Friedkin because that will always, ALWAYS pull the viewer out of a film, take it from a born and bred Southerner. I was even considerably surprised to learn Juno Temple was an English actress as she absolutely nailed the accent. Every actor in this film played their parts to perfection, performing the actor’s task of drawing in the viewer and questioning just where things are going to go. Matthew McConaughey, of course, is the obvious standout as Killer Joe Cooper. Playing against his usual type as the romantic lead, he played the character with a cold, calculated viciousness I haven’t seen onscreen in a very long time. He expressed so much in the character with just a stare, stated by Juno Temple’s character Dottie with “your eyes hurt.” I don’t know which was more chilling, when Joe was his cold, calculating self, or when he let the animal out (something I haven’t seen expressed from McConaughey since TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION). And though it was barely audible, Friedkin did this wonderful audio cue whenever Joe entered the scene in the beginning with the sound of cicadas and the flicking of his Zippo, both of which, while in themselves normally innate, became ominous sounds of dread.
While usually not a fan of anything Emile Hirsch is in (not even the critically acclaimed INTO THE WILD), I believe he’s growing as an actor as his performance of the ever distressed Chris Smith was believable and even, to a point, sympathetic. Indebted to a southern mob boss the character, after initially being tricked, continues to make one mistake after another and, via Emile Hirsch’s brilliant portrayal, we see a young man falling deeper and deeper into dispair and desperation bringing the viewer to sympathize and pity his plight as he continues to look for a way out, eventually taking on the characteristics of a caged beast.
Aside from McConaughey, Juno Temple has been receiving a lot of attention as the almost mystical Dottie Smith. Though seeming like a young, naive white trash young woman, her character (as the viewer comes to realize) sees more than any other character in the film. Almost childlike, her character, initially, is put up as collateral as Chris has nothing to pay Joe upfront for the assassination of Chris’s mother for her life insurance. Joe, at first, considers her nothing but a retainer, a plaything of sorts, but over time the two fall in love, making things somewhat…complicated once again for Chris. Meanwhile Dottie remains quiet, willing to go along with things, but, unlike the other characters, seeing the truth of things from the very beginning, and sick of being used as a pawn, leading to an end that must be seen to be believed (no spoilers here boils ‘n ghouls).
The supporting cast, as well, are exemplary. Thomas Haden Church plays the ever unaware Ansel Smith, constantly clad in dirty work clothes and trucker hat, he brings a sense of dark humor to an otherwise incredibly disturbing film. And he plays his part to perfection. While by no means innocent, Ansel portrays the sense of the white trash everyman, a man who just wants to live and let live and gets caught up in things beyond his control.
And rounding up the cast is Gina Gershon as Sharla Smith, Ansel’s second wife and, as with McConaughey, plays against type as white trash and mean as they come. Using Ansel as little more than a plaything, she orders him around like a dog and Ansel, true to character, goes right along with it without so much as a fuss. She plays her character perfectly as the scheming, trailer trash stepmom. I grew up around these people, people who truly hate the situation they’re in and are willing to do anything, anything to get out of it. I’m not going to go into too much detail on that as I promised before, no spoilers. There’s something else about Gershon as an actress in this film…the woman is brave. The things she has to endure as an actress of her calibre are truly horrifying the the viewer is left with a conundrum as to whether or not she deserves it; her cruelty, in the end, ultimately turned against her. But like Ansel says at one point towards the end, “you made your bed.”
KILLER JOE is one of the best films I’ve seen in a very, very long time. Every line, nearly every shot, hell, just about every aspect of the film all fit together perfectly, making it an almost perfect film. That’s a rare thing in this day in age when very little care seems to be put into filmmaking anymore. While I, personally, would suggest this film to everyone I know (excepting, perhaps, my mother), this is a hard film to watch. Throughout the entire film, things continue to get worse for the characters and the violence (necessary in all cases and not in the least bit exploitative) escalates to a final 20 minutes or so that just has to be seen to be believed. This film truly surprised me. Not by the violence or incredibly harsh nature of the film (earning it an NC-17), but just how perfectly it was put together. Nothing is wasted, every actor plays their character naturally. It’s as if you’re truly gaining a glimpse into the dark underbelly of the “dirty south” I’ve spoken about on a few occasions. Friedkin and Letts opened a portal into the brutal nature of man with complete sincerity, making KILLER JOE an incredibly important film not to be missed.
The KILLER JOE Unrated Director’s Cut Blu-Ray is a work of art. The 1080p transfer and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is perfect, with even the smallest detail seen and heard as it ought to be, in crystal clear clarity.
The special features include: “Southern Fried Hospitality: From Stage to Screen” offered an incredible insight into how a stage play set in essentially one room was taken into Friedkin’s hands and made into a Southern Gothic world.
Other special features are an audio commentary from director William Friedkin that is nothing less than interesting and engaging.
Additionally, there is also a SXSW Q&A with the cast and SXSW Intro by Friedkin.
And rounding out the special features is the special “White Trash” Red Band Trailer.