We are told from the opening credits that Killer Joe is based on a play by Tracey Letts, but also a film by William Friedkin. The latter is far more apparent than former judging by the viciously satirical, yet utterly compelling way in which the story unfolds. Chris (Emile Hirsch) owes $6,000 to a local criminal. Poor, unemployed and lacking in other options, he suggest to his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) that they hire a police detective, who doubles as a hitman called Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) to kill his mother so that they can claim the life insurance. Unable to pay Joe upfront, Chris offers his sister Dotty (Juno Temple) as a makeweight against the debt until the job is complete.
Killer Joe starts as a straightforward petty thug morality tale, but soon ventures into more dark and absurd territory as one bungling escapade leads to another. At the centre of the storm that is the central plot is the relationship between Joe and Dotty. McConaughey hasn’t been this brutally intimidating and provocatively charismatic in years, and when viewed alongside Magic Mike starts to show something of a renaissance in his career after years of mediocre romantic comedies. Alongside his cool yet sometimes cruel Joe is Juno Temple as Dotty. In a role that is equal parts naive innocent, equal parts calculated pure intelligence she cuts a unique presence alongside the rest of her down-and-dirty redneck family.
It is clear that Killer Joe is an adapted screenplay as the cinematography is often forgone to establish long scenes in set places. This gives the film an air of a family drama, and despite the lack of actual blood relationship between Joe and Dotty’s family, he still manages to treat them all as children whom he is disappointed in. This creates an interesting and thoroughly gruesome finale that ties together the seething desire for violence (fried chicken) and retribution. It’s remarkable not only because you believe in each character’s drives by this point, but also because of the manner in which they each receive what they crave, if not in the way they expected.
Much like The Exorcist, Friedkin’s Killer Joe is ostensibly a family drama, only instead of grounding it in religion and the supernatural, it portrays a stylised view of Southern America and the weird and wonderful cliches and caricatures from that setting. It’s at times brutal, disturbing and laugh out loud funny and is one of the most memorable small-budget releases in years and continues the rebirth of McConaughey’s career.