William Friedkin's best film since To Live and Die in L.A. or even The Exorcist, Killer Joe is an at times disturbing and often hilarious Texas set crime saga rich in atmosphere and character.
The film opens with a desperate Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) pleading to be let into his family's mobile home as a summer storm rages. An uneducated ne'er-do-well prone to gambling, Chris owes a gangster six thousand dollars after his mother stole and sold his cocaine. (The Smiths are, understand, a shade dysfunctional.)
His slow father (Thomas Haden Church) can't help. "I never had a thousand dollars in my life," he says. Chris, however, has a sinister plan, and it involves his mother's life insurance. He has been told his sister (Juno Temple, very charming and playful) will inherit $50,000 in the event of her death, and he plans to hire Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a police detective and part-time hit man, to do the deed. Unable to cover his fee, Chris queasily agrees to let his virginal sister be Joe's retainer. In this film, awful decisions lead to even worse consequences and in the end to a furious and spectacular climax.
In his third memorable film of the year after Bernie and Magic Mike, it is clear Matthew McConaughey is emerging from a fog of mediocre American romantic comedies and establishing himself once again as a serious, even formidable actor. He is on fire here, magnetic and frightening and reminiscent of Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen.
The qualities which rendered McConaughey the perfect romantic lead are put to fresh and fascinating use. With his leather coat and chiseled, tan features, he enters the film an image of perfect Southern-lawman masculinity, complete with a romantic story of growing up on the Texas side of the Red River of the South. There is an instant tension: we wonder what will come of this man, an ice cold figure of sexual power and lethal violence so in control of his environment, clashing with the good-for-naught, scheming, stupefied men of the Smith family, played with anxious conviction by Hirsch and comic imbecility by Church (a real scene stealer in his own right). This is Hirsch's first worthwhile role in four years. I was starting to fear the promise he displayed in films such as Into the Wild and Milk had vanished.
The characters are for the most part unsympathetic (they are cruel and self-destructive), but they are nuanced. It is a pleasure to regard them as they damn themselves and those around them, always going left when they should go right. With each, there is a central question: does Joe have the power to control this nightmare of a situation, and can he see each and every angle? Could even he end up on the wrong side of a gun? Will Chris realize how much evil he has wrought and change course? Is his dim sister as far gone as the others believe, or is she conscious of how she is being used and abused by the men in her life? The film traces each question to its surprising and rewarding conclusion. The last few minutes almost stop one's heart.
Now in his seventies, the iconic, but often inconsistent Friedkin's instincts are the sharpest they have been in almost three decades. He knows when to put the camera in motion (there is a fantastic chase sequence with Chris trying to evade two motorcycle-riding enforcers coming to collect what is owed), and when to let scenes live and breathe and evolve at a more deliberate pace. Favoring shots of distant lightning on the horizon and characters in developed, but isolated environments, the director infuses the film with a specific and vivid atmosphere: this is an industrial, sad, and disregarded corner of the Lone Star State.
Though its restrictive NC-17 is undeserved (always remember: the Motion Picture Association of America gave Hostel an R), Killer Joe is no doubt for an adult audience and proud of it. In the season of sequels and superheroes, one of the great directors of the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation has delivered a dynamite entertainment with ace performances, old-school suspense, and sinister humor to spare.