Killer Joe

Matthew McConaughey and Juno Temple in Killer Joe


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



18 August


Lolita published, 1958

If you’re looking for a start date for the 1960s, you could do a lot worse than this: 18 August 1958, when Vladimir Nabokov’s novel was first published in the USA. Detailing the love of a middle aged literature professor for a 12-year-old girl, whom he has nicknamed Lolita, it had first been finished in 1953, but was turned down for publication by a string of publishing houses, finally seeing light of day only after Olympia Press in France, a publisher of pornography, printed it in 1955. In spite of its low key debut, it sold like crazy, and by the end of the year it had been praised by Graham Greene as one of the best books of the year. At this point customs officials in the UK were ordered to seize all copies entering the country. It was then banned in France too. On 18 August the controversial publisher GP Putnam’s Sons published it in the USA. Within three days it had gone into its third printing. Within three weeks it had sold 100,000 copies.




Killer Joe (2011, dir: William Friedkin)

As dumb families go, the Smiths take some beating. There’s Chris (Emile Hirsch), his stupid dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and his dumb sister Dottie (Juno Temple) who want their estranged wife/mother dead so they can claim on the insurance money – something about a drugs debt. So they hire full-time cop and part-time hitman Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to do it, a man of slow-poke speech patterns, old world manners and dead eyes. Joe wants a “retainer” and, being dumb, the family goes along with the idea, until they realise that they don’t have any money. That’s why they want mom dead, after all. Joe suggests that instead of cash he’ll have Dottie, who has been dancing around the house braless in a T shirt while the negotiating has been going on and hasn’t been looking bad at all.
All this is set-up, and anyone who has seen William Friedkin’s The Exorcist will know that he’s good at laying out a trail of crumbs, luring us in and then … wham! What he’s setting us up for is entirely in spoiler territory, but let’s just say that Killer Joe spends the last two thirds of the film playing with this family who think they are running the gig, torturing them in one way or another, humiliating them, at one point making Ansel’s new wife (Gina Gershon) fellate a piece of fried chicken in a scene that will stick like crumb in the throat.
What sort of a film is it, that’s the question. An incendiary drama is how it’s usually described, but I reckon it’s a comedy, this family are simply too bone stupid to be the point of identification – they’re not “relatable”. It’s easier to relate to Joe. He’s suave and smart, horrible, for sure, but is only dishing out what this bunch of retards and potential proxy murderers, let’s not forget, have coming. Joe is an agent of natural justice. And the jaunty exit song, as the final credits roll, seems to be nudging the audience towards that interpretation too.
As for the acting. Well, this is one of the films that went towards the “McConaissance” of Matthew McConaughey. Two years before it was the dreck of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Two years later it was an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club, having been impressive in The Paperboy, Mud and Magic Mike along the way. Hirsch and Haden Church are, you know, OK. They do what they have to do. It’s Gina Gershon as the slutty spanner-mouthed Sharla who impresses whenever Juno Temple isn’t holding the floor, her Dottie all Lolita eyed and girlie voiced, and swinging her breasts about in ways designed to madden and delight.
No, as a piece of Southern fried gothic, a pale Tennessee Williams drama of inadequate men and women undone by their sexuality, it just won’t do. But as a very dark comedy that never cracks a smile, Killer Joe is mighty fine indeed.



Why Watch?


  • Juno Temple’s great performance
  • Part of the McConaissance
  • An interesting film from an interesting director
  • Is it a comedy?


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Killer Joe – Watch it now at Amazon





9 November 2012-11-09

Matthew McConaughey and Juno Temple in Killer Joe

Out in the UK This Week

Killer Joe (Entertainment One, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

French Connection/Exorcist director William Friedkin returns to form and hands a decent role to Matthew McConaughey, who plays a dead-eyed contract killer menacing a family who thought they’d hired him to kill the materfamilias for insurance gain. As with The Exorcist, Friedkin gives us an awful lot of set-up before he gets the nasty stuff out, by which time we’re emotionally invested and feeling every jab. Juno Temple stands out as the braless jailbait who catches McC’s eye, but it’s very hard to get really involved in this family as they’re so scarily dim. Unless the whole thing is meant to be a hellishly black comedy and not a thriller at all. At least that’s the way I started reading it.

Killer Joe – at Amazon

Katy Perry: Part of Me (Paramount, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Lollipops aloft for a canny film that’s partly a spangly concert doc, partly a rags-to-riches biog but mostly a revealing essay on the personal cost of life on the road for the current queen of cartoon pop. Co-queen, sorry, along with Nicki Minaj. Perry come across as a very bright, sweet, enthusiastic, hard-working trouper – I suppose that was why directors Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz were hired, after all. But there are telltale moments, orchestrated or not, that shed light on the “life in the spotlight” phenomenon. As this film was being made Perry’s relationship with Russell Brand collapsed. We see her crying, slumped, then strapping on a smile to go on stage… to sing The One That Got Away. Only a heartless brute wouldn’t well up.

Katy Perry: Part of Me – at Amazon

King of Devil’s Island (Arrow, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

The Reform School Drama, Norwegian style, with Stellan Skarsgård lending international box-office clout and then standing back to let a cast of unknowns do their work, in particular Benjamin Helstad as the young, tough new arrival measuring himself against his ability to take the knocks the institution is handing out. The Magdalene Sisters meets Cool Hand Luke might be a slightly unhelpful way of describing what you’re getting, and as with both those film there’s a very well defined sense of place (ie it looks bloody cold). A tough, gripping tale of hardship with well drawn relationships, plenty of narrative tug and a climax that is worth hanging on for once the writers and director have exhausted the genre clichés.

King of Devil’s Island – at Amazon

Men in Black 3 (Sony, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Will Smith goes back to an old franchise (favours being called in by the studio?) and takes Josh Brolin back with him in a story that might be loosely described as “how Tommy Lee Jones became a Man in Black”. Brolin is standing in for Jones, you see, and in the few scenes with Jones in at the beginning, you’re glad of the fact, so waxy does the great man look. As for the film itself, it is a cheapjack cash-in that takes half an hour to get going, at which point it does manage to hit a few comic targets. And it has to be admitted that Brolin’s Tommy Lee Jones impression is amusing. Best thing of all is Jemaine Clement, eye-opening as a camp badass villain.

Men in Black 3 – at Amazon

Swerve (High Fliers, cert 15, DVD)

Sometimes it’s the low-budget films that give off the best odour. Take this cheapie set out in the Australian desert, where an innocent man, a bad blonde, a suitcase full of hooky loot and a psychotic cop are cooked into something almost resembling a Hitchcock thriller. I’m not going to pretend that Swerve is genius stuff. It’s not. But it’s got an almost-there quality – the good stuff is very good, it’s got atmosphere to spare and a dangerous mule-kick of pheromones too. Let’s mark director Craig Lahiff down as a man to watch.

Swerve – at Amazon

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

How would you behave if you knew the world was about to end? In this drama playing like a riff on Lars Von Trier’s superior Melancholia we see the reaction of a suburban couple who hear the announcement while out in the car. She immediately gets out of the car and runs away. From him. He (it’s Steve Carell) goes to work. He sells insurance. Hollow laugh. The opening scenes of a drama that’s actually about a couple thrown together by this impending apocalypse – Carell going on to meet dizzy babe Keira Knightley. It starts brilliantly as Strangelove-ian satire, then handbrake-turns into unconvincing romance. We can see what’s in it for him; but what’s she getting out of it?

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012