SXSW 2012 Review: ‘Killer Joe’ Offers Laughs, Smart Brutality, and The Drumstick

By  · Published on March 11th, 2012

SXSW 2012 Review: ‘Killer Joe’ Offers Laughs, Smart Brutality, and The Luckiest Drumstick You’ll Ever See

Killer Joe is rough. William Friedkin’s stage adaptation of Tracy Letts stage play is unhinged but controlled and surpasses many of its fellow genre brethren. If you thought Bug was “crazy,” just wait until you get to Killer Joe’s final minutes of unnerving brutality.

Before we get there, however, what we’re served is a fairly conventional story that only makes a daringly violent final act land its horrors. Killer Joe does not follow the brightest of characters. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), a young and annoying kid, wants to kill his mother who sold his drugs. Said mother, a woman Chris and his sister despise, holds a life insurance check that would payoff 50,000 dollars, so the young lead and his family decide to claim it.

Chris and his even more empty-minded father, Ansel – played hilariously and with a small hint of sadness by Thomas Haden Church – hire Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to take care of her. Cooper, a cop who does killings on the side, takes the job, but under unique circumstances. Since Chris and Ansel are not capable of paying his fee upfront, so he takes a retainer: Chris’s sister. Friedkin doesn’t shy away or comment on the darkness, just lets it speak for itself.

Matthew McConaughey is terrifying throughout it all. Joe Cooper could very well be his most finely-tuned piece of acting yet, in close competition with the untouchable machismo he showed off in Reign of Fire. The casting of McConaughey is rather inspired; he’s got a likable presence and charm, so seeing him go to the dark side, it’s startling. When Joe Cooper politely informs a character he’ll cut off their face and wear it, McConaughey makes you believe he’ll do it.

Despite his calm and oddball sense of humor, there’s a quiet rage McConaughey shows in Joe that’s always brewing and ready to get unleashed. Joe Cooper’s the kind of guy who’s clearly aware of the effect he has on people, and throughout the film, he takes advantage of that, especially over the boyish Chris.

Everyone is under Joe’s thumb. By the end, after all the idiotic crap he and his wife have committed, this actor reminds you that we’re looking at a real person, not Cleetus from The Simpsons. The rest of the cast does exceptional work, but it’s McConaughey and Church who emerge most fully from Friedkin’s dirty tale of what happens when morons make truly moronic decisions. Killer Joe’s rough and tumble demeanor and characters are impossible to look away from. He’s not afraid to shove your face into ugliness – in ways that you’ll either love or hate – and, early on, you’ll be fully aware if this is your kind of a film. It’s a movie that is confident in what it is and what it has to say.

The Upside: Doesn’t pull any punches: watching McConaughey and Church play off each other; grows better and smarter with time; isn’t afraid to act silly; the last ten minutes.

The Downside: You know from frame one Chris doesn’t stand a chance against Joe; a dream sequence; plods at times.

On The Side: The NC-17 rating is ridiculous.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.