Review: “Killer Joe” (2011), starring Matthew McConaughey

KILLER JOE movie poster

KILLER JOE movie poster (image via The Coda blog).

Review summary: A film set in Dallas, but made in New Orleans, has problems with authenticity even before the first reel begins to play.

Produced by: Nicolas ChartierScott Einbinder

Directed by: William Friedkin

Written by: Tracy Letts (screenplay and play)

Starring: Matthew McConaugheyEmile HirschJuno Temple

There has been a lot of buzz about Matthew McConaughey’s performance in Dallas Buyers Club, which has been nominated for Best Picture at the upcoming 2014 Academy Awards. McConaughey himself is one of the nominees for Best Actor in a Leading Role at the Oscars for his portrayal of “Killer Joe” Cooper in this film, which is based on a play by Tracy Letts. Is it possible to detect a development in his acting, a progression towards Oscar-quality results, in his work in previous films?

There are several films that a curious movie fan can consider; Mud and The Paperboy from 2012 and The Lincoln Lawyer and Killer Joe from 2011 are examples. Killer Joe is an interesting choice to consider because it was adapted from a stage play. The leading role in a work written for the stage can be attractive to an actor or actress because the plot moves more through dialogue and the unfolding of relationships between characters in an ensemble and less via facial expressions, gestures, and dramatic action involving elaborate staging, special effects, and a cast of thousands.

This is the case in Killer Joe, in which McConaughey plays a character whose life involves two contradictory personas. On the one hand, he is Detective Joe Cooper of the Dallas Police Department, a Southern gentleman who protects the populace by solving serious crimes like murder. On the other, he is “Killer Joe,” who is known in the Dallas criminal underworld as an efficient, cold-blooded killer-for-hire.

Joe has managed to keep his two selves separate and his two worlds from colliding by insisting that his clients adhere strictly to two rules. First, if they are caught by the police and implicated in a killing, they are not to reveal his identity or participation.  The consequences for not following this rule are simple and straightforward: “If you break this rule, you’ll be killed.” Second, Joe insists on payment, in advance, of his $25,000 fee, “no exceptions.”

When Chris (Hirsch) finds himself unable to pay debts incurred to the local good-ol-boy crime boss in the course of drug-dealing, he hits upon the idea of killing his mother for the $50,000 death benefit from her life insurance policy. He has heard that his sister, Dottie (Temple) is the beneficiary of this policy. Moreover, he has heard about Killer Joe. He convinces his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), to go along with the plot. Dottie overhears their discussion of the details and (to Chris’ surprise) agrees that “it’s a good idea.” Meanwhile, Ansel (who has divorced Chris and Dottie’s mother and then remarried) involves his wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon), in the plot.  Sharla and Chris hate each other, but are willing to work together for the sake of the money.

The scheme is almost derailed when the four conspirators run afoul of Killer Joe’s second rule. At first, he refuses to do the hit because they can pay him only after he has done the job and they have collected the insurance payout. However, Joe has had his eyes on Dottie (who is a virgin) and breaks his own rule by offering to do the job if Chris is willing to give him Dottie as the carnal payment of a “retainer” for his services. Everyone, including (eventually) Dottie herself, agrees with this arrangement. Joe decides to live in Ansel and Sharla’s trailer with Dottie until he has been paid for his work.

Joe’s lust proves to be his tragic flaw. To avoid spoiling the film’s climax and denouement, I can only say that best-laid plans do go awry. Nevertheless, Joe comes up with an idea for an alternative payment for services rendered. In a stage-like final act, the four conspirators and Joe sit down to a perverse family dinner at the trailer, during which each character must reveal his or her true motivation, allegiance, and intentions. Ironically, the final outcome is up to Dottie, who until the film’s climax is treated like livestock to be sold to the highest bidder.

Does McConaughey deliver a performance that suggests a progression towards an Oscar nomination? No. Is this film the kind of vehicle that an actor of his caliber could use to do so? Again, no. It relies on cliches about Southern redneck trailer trash and good ol’ boy cops and criminals that are just too generic to be believable. It doesn’t ring true as a story that occurs in a specific city, Dallas, that has intimate connections with its action. For that matter, it could have been filmed on a sound stage in Hollywood — it’s just that formulaic. Not even two actors who were raised in Texas — McConaughey and Church — could add a whiff of authenticity. Perhaps it plays better on the stage than on the screen.

Frisco Kid’s rating: 2 out of 5 bloody KFC fried chicken legs.

Film Facts (from IMDB):

  • MPAA Rating: R (edited down from NC-17)
  • Runtime: 102 min (original), 98 min (edited)
  • Sound: Dolby
  • Color
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1