When first arriving at SXSW I would have never thought that my favorite film of the fest would be Killer Joe. I say that right off the bat because Killer Joe is just that good. The film has everything you would expect from a Texas thriller: sex, murder, and mayhem all wrapped up in some good old family values. It scares me how much I love this movie because how do you tell your loved ones that your favorite film of SXSW featured a bit of fried chicken fellatio.
It’s in these scenes of pure shock that Killer Joe will be remembered for, but if you only take that away from your experience, then you’ve missed the bigger meaning behind the film. Yes, it is gruesome and at times hard to watch, but in those scenes, the film challenges its audience to admit that they are enjoying what they are seeing. Most people will say they are offended by the violence and sexuality in the film, but I just say to those people: you’re letting your own personal views get in the way of enjoying this phenomenal piece of art. If art isn’t making a statement that might offend, then is it really art worth acknowledging?
Killer Joe is the story of Chris Smith a low life drug dealer that has to come up with a lot of cash in a short amount of time before the town drug lord puts him six feet under. It’s desperate times like these that always push people into moments that end up defining their whole life. For Chris, this defining moment comes when he hires Joe to kill his mother for 50,000 dollars in insurance money. This plan of debauchery quickly pulls Chris’ whole family in, and everyone involved has their own reasons to see the woman dead. It’s in these reasons that the film slowly builds, and reveals everyone’s ulterior motives. Killer Joe is filled with the kind of lies and deceit that will make your hair stand on end and it’s better going in with a little more intrigue than knowledge of the film’s all-encompassing plot.
A film is only as strong as its writing, and when you have a screenplay written by Tracy Letts (Bug), it’s hard to go wrong. Letts first adapted Killer Joe for the stage, to only later be enticed by director William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) to bring the play to the big screen. It’s in Killer Joe that you get a look into the mind of Letts and understand he’s not afraid to put his darkest thoughts on the page. Without Letts’ beautifully detailed script, Killer Joe wouldn’t be the power house of a film that it is. Add the perfect cast of Matthew McConaughey, Gina Gershon, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, and Juno Temple and you not only have the best film of SXSW, but maybe even this year.
This monumental cast is in all ways perfect, as everyone gives their all to make Killer Joe the best film it can be. With every film, there are stand-out performances, and for Killer Joe, it’s McConaughey that has the most shocking transition. With films like The Lincoln Lawyer and now Killer Joe, McConaughey is boldly making the statement that he deserves more recognition. Joe is the type of character that defines a career, and while McConaughey needs no definition, he comes to the role with an undeniably strong passion for the material. If by the end of the year we can look past the vulgar material of the film, then I wouldn’t be surprised if McConaughey is doing “alright” during awards season. I know for one that he’s already got my vote. While McConaughey will have everyone talking, it is his costars that bring the film to life.
To close out my review without mentioning the name Juno Temple would be a travesty. Temple plays Dottie with a sense of childlike wonderment that can’t be faked. Without her performance, the entire film would crumble to the ground. Dottie is the only likable character in the entire film, and Temple has created an identity that begs for your sympathy. However, just when you have given up on the sanity of the small girl, she surprises you. With the convincing talents of Temple, the last sequence wouldn’t be as powerful, and the film would have suffered terminally. With a film that clings tightly to its final encounters, it is Temple that keeps the film hanging by the edge of the cliff.
Everything that is so great about Killer Joe must be credited back to William Friedkin. Without his visionary direction, a film like Killer Joe just wouldn’t be possible. While it is shocking to hear, Killer Joe feels like the film Friedkin has been building up to his entire life. For a director with a career flourishing since 1965, I can’t think of any better compliment than the applause from a swelling crowd in the city of Austin. Killer Joe has it all and more. It is the must see film of 2012, and something that film fanatics will talk about for years to come. So please, make sure you’re a part of the conversation by seeing Killer Joe the second your local cinema marque screams its name.
I give Killer Joe our highest honor, The McConaughey Salute!
By Ryan Davis