Review: Killer Joe

PLOT: When low-level drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) loses $6000 worth of merchandise, he knows his days are numbered unless he can pay off the debt. Knowing that his mother, who he despises, has a life insurance policy worth $50,000- with his sister Dottie (Juno Temple) named as the beneficiary, Chris and his father Ansel (Thomas Hayden-Church) plot to do her in. To that end, they hire Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) – a dirty cop, who makes a lucrative side living as a hit man. Not having the $10,000 needed to pay him, Joe convinces them to let him take Dottie as sexual collateral.

REVIEW : KILLER JOE is another Tracy Letts adaptation for director William Friedkin, following their previous collaboration, BUG. Without a doubt, Friedkin is one of my all-time favorite directors, although it could be argued that he hasn’t done a truly great film since 1985’s TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA. Still, he’s responsible for four all-time classics (besides LA, SORCERER, THE EXORCIST, & THE FRENCH CONNECTION, although a compelling argument can be made for CRUISING), and some of his recent work (like THE HUNTER and BUG) is underrated.

Like BUG, KILLER JOE seems less like a full-on movie than a filmed play, but also like BUG, the story, dialogue, and acting are good enough that you won’t necessarily care. Granted, KILLER JOE, centers on a bunch of pretty despicable characters. The “hero” is a low-level drug-dealer who doesn’t think twice about pimping out his somewhat naïve (possible semi-autistic) sister to a professional killer, and is also planning to do away with his own mother. KILLER JOE s another unconventional choice for Hirsch, who could have gone the “teen idol” way a few years ago in the wake of SPEED RACER, but instead has focused more on meaty character roles.

Stiil, good as Hirsch is, KILLER JOE is utterly dominated by Matthew McConaughey. Who’d a thunk it? It seems like the former rom-com idol is hellbent on reinventing himself following his excellent turn in THE LINCOLN LAWYER. Good as he was in that film, KILLER JOE is something else. I believe this is the first time he’s ever played a heavy, but his easygoing Southern-drawl, courtly manner, and good looks make him a unique baddie. Especially interesting is his relationship with Dottie, who, far from being disturbed by being essentially sold to Joe, is attracted to him, and later, maybe even loves him.

The last twenty minutes of the film are particularly good for McConaughey. What starts as a quick KFC meal with Church & Gina Gershon’s characters, escalates into an insanely brutal series of confrontations, with him beating several characters to a pulp, even using a can of soup to almost cave a character’s head in. McConaughey’s manic performance is something to behold, and it all leads to a final scene that is so good I decided to jump my final score on ten up a whole point, as it was not at all what I was expecting, and as far from predictable as you can get.

Whether you like KILLER JOE or not really depends on your tolerance for what’s essentially a filmed play. It’s not terribly cinematic, but it’s intriguing, and McConaughey’s performance is too good to ignore. Between this, THE LINCOLN LAWYER, and his upcoming film with Jeff Nichols (TAKE SHELTER), I think we’re seeing one of the most exciting career reinventions in quite some time.

Review: Killer Joe




About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.