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Arts & Culture

Review: Killer Joe

The perfectly disheveled Smith family in "Killer Joe."
(left to right) Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church, Juno Temple
The perfectly disheveled Smith family in "Killer Joe." (left to right) Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church, Juno Temple

Murder Never Tasted So Good

"Killer Joe" lives up to its simple, raw title. It opens at Landmark Hillcrest August 17.

Killer Joe Official Trailer [HD]: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch and Juno Temple: ENTV

It's horrible, funny, twisted, dark, and captivating. Really the adjectives could go on and on.

As I type this review, I'm still excited about the film. I don't know where to start and I want to talk about everything. But I don't want to give too much away, because I sat down in the theatre knowing very little about the film, initially, and I think that made it a better experience. I knew Matthew McConaughey was the leading actor (which I was not excited about), I knew there would be killing of some sort, and it may be like a modern Western film. I was so wrong, and it was so great.


Our main characters, the Smith family, fit their role well. The biggest stand out of the film was McConaughey, obviously, but the Smiths were a perfect support system for his Killer Joe Cooper. The Smiths were played by Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, and Gina Gershon. The only problem I had with the family was Hirsch, who plays moronic hoodlum and general low-life, Chris Smith. Chris is just trying to get his head above water and out of trouble, but can't seem to get things right. Hirsch simply wasn't believable at times, but luckily our focus didn't fix solely on him, and branched out as the film unraveled. As a supporting actor in a scene, with fewer lines, he's fits just fine.

Chris' family is the band of hicks we have all come to know and love from similar films. His sister Dotty (Temple) is the oddly charming and beautiful daughter, who is treated like property by her parents and Joe. The only one who shows her even a little respect as a person is her brother (sometimes). She is the most valuable commodity the Smith's own, because of her attractiveness and manipulatability. Dotty's step mother, Sharla (Gershon), puts it best when she notes, "She can't put two and two together."

Sharla is a piece of work - a manipulative Southern belle, looking out for her own interest. Gershon fits. And lastly, Church plays the ever-dense stepfather, Ansel. I imagine the director had few notes for Church: talk slow, keep your mouth open, look dirty. Good job, Church! And really, good job to the casting director. This family provided the perfect amount of chaos for Joe to shine as the character he needed to be.

Quickly, I noticed that all McConaughey had to do was remain calm in the storm of craziness that is the Smith family. They are a collective mess on their own, even without the whole "let's kill Mom" idea. So the Killer Joe character seemed simple, as if anyone could fill his shoes. I thought maybe there could have been a better pick for Joe, especially in his first scene with Dotty. They were alone, and he had to be intrigued by her, she impressed with him. This had to be enough for the audience to notice and feel while not detracting from the current matter at hand. The chemistry wasn't quite there and McConaughey wasn't quite there for me in this scene. Slowly it got better. And it all changed dramatically in his first romantic scene with Dotty. It was enticing and uncomfortable (in all the right ways), and it really set the tone for their relationship and McConaughey's capabilities as the eery Killer Joe. He was smooth, controlled, and intentional through the entire film, but this physical encounter with Dotty was something else, something I'm not sure I can describe. He had dominance of the entire room, the entire audience, and of Dotty's body and mind. Throughout the rest of the film he maintained his cool, but his control was very different.

Critics have said that "Killer Joe" is McConaughey's best performance, and while this isn't the most difficult achievement considering his past roles, I absolutely agree. I like the place McConaughey found himself in for this role. Killer Joe Cooper took the audience, and McConaughey, somewhere else - somewhere dark.

Matthew McConaughey as Killer Joe Cooper
Matthew McConaughey as Killer Joe Cooper

And I must address the ending scene. It really made the film what it is. (And for those who have already seen the film, you know why the above picture is really haunting.) It was uniquely amazing, horrifying, and funny. It was everything it needed to be and nothing more - the best I could expect from McConaughey and the director. I struggle to remember a film with an ending as perfectly timed or as gripping as this one. The audience's reaction to the final moments is one of the best film experiences I can remember. This made up for their boisterous laughs at the funny moments, which are made better by uncomfortable silence. You are forgiven, audience.

For my last review I saw "The Bourne Legacy," and my action pallet was left unfulfilled. "Killer Joe" subdued my cravings handily, in a very different way. If you leave the theatre after "Joe" without getting your action fix, I could only recommend the safest go-to violence picks: "Gladiator," "13 Assassins," "13th Warrior," and "The Walking Dead" series.

In short, Matthew McConaughey has proven his worth as an actor (not just a hot piece of romantic comedy man meat), and I have to watch "Killer Joe" again. I recommend it to anyone looking for an unconventional, twisted film experience.

Companion films: "A Clockwork Orange" (1971) A notorious film that I only recommend because of the last (and most gripping) scene in "Killer Joe." The persistent and creepy control struck me instantly as "Clockwork Orange-esque." And while I have issues with "Orange," it is undoubtedly an important film, and one I feel most would enjoy if "Joe" suits them.

"Winter's Bone" (2010) A film that similarly shows an amplified Southern, male-dominated culture, with a generally dark tone.

"Tropic Thunder" (2008) for a drastically different side of Matthew McConaughey -- a pick me up after the dark, draining "Joe."

Nathan John is a former KPBS News Assistant and just couldn't stay away so now he is a guest blogger for Cinema Junkie.