The NC-17 is coming back with a vengeance between this year’s Killer Joe and last year’s Shame. Killer Joe itself is an interesting film in that one scene is all that pushes the limit over into the taboo rating, but boy does that scene stick with you. The entire film is gritty, brutal, Southern-fried crime film with some strong performances, but none better than Matthew McConaughey who is nothing short of terrifying as the title character. Take heed, Killer Joe is not for the faint of heart. It’ll hook into you and refuse to let up till the very end.
Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a young drug dealer who must come up with $6,000 or be killed. His mother, who nobody seems to like, has a $50,000 life insurance policy which Chris decides to cash in. He hears of a cop named Joe Cooper (McConaughey) who moonlights as an assassin. The problem is Cooper wants a hefty down payment that Chris can’t afford, so instead he offers up his sweet sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as a “retainer.” When things start to go sideways with the murder scheme, Dottie is placed in the middle and Killer Joe might be out for more blood.
I was desperate to see this in theaters, but unfortunately its rating limited the mass-market appeal, so I was forced to wait till DVD. Director William Friedkin is no beginner when it comes to controversy; this is the man who directed The Exorcist after all. The film is brutal and downright depraved in parts blending the black humor of a Cronenberg film with the blunt violence of early Oliver Stone. If you do decide to watch this you can’t be afraid of blood or nudity. The first two minutes of the film has a woman’s vagina right in the center of the camera if that’s enough of an indication on how cavalier the film is with nudity. Gina Gershon and Juno Temple are nude several times, and after awhile it becomes old hat and boring, but wow the does the first five minutes set the tone for their characters. The humor is acid black throughout, but I did find myself laughing at certain scenes, particularly when Joe is recounting a story about a relationship turned sour to Dottie. Dottie asks if the man in the story was okay, and considering the way the story ended it’s laughable to assume the man was okay which McConaughey tells her.
The acting is worthy of accolades, especially from McConaughey. The man is a chameleon who’s played all types of characters, both good and bad, throughout his career but this is a game-changing role. The piercing gaze of McConaughey in this film tells all. You fear him, you’re intimidated by him, but you can’t help but be drawn to him. As Chris and his family continue to screw things up, Joe is the only one left as a sense of calm, and yet he’s bubbling under the surface. You never know if his intentions for Dottie are pure, but they cannot be good. Gershon and Temple are great as two sides of the female coin. Gershon is the dark femme fatale while Temple is the angelic innocent; neither woman comes out of the film unscathed. Thomas Haden Church and Emile Hirsch are also good, but the only male worth watching is McConaughey.
The film did receive its NC-17 rating because of one scene involving a chicken leg that happens towards the end of the movie. If you rent this at a Redbox or Blockbuster, keep in mind it’s been edited down to an R-rating. The aforementioned chicken scene uses new angles that dull the impact slightly, but doesn’t remove what the audience is meant to feel. That scene in particular is hard to watch because of how perverse and degrading it is. It does have a purpose within the film outside of shock value, but it does play as confusing on the R-rated edition.
Perverse, tightly wound, and fascinating as can be, I’d definitely place Killer Joe on my Best Of list simply for McConaughey’s performance. He’s been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, and I hope he gets other accolades for this as well. Go rent it if you have the stomach.