Killer Joe Reviews
The high point of William Friedkin's career came from the 1970's with inconsistent results in the following decades, but given the popular reception of Killer Joe and the man's ability to build a strongly intense atmosphere in The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), I figured that perhaps Killer Joe would serve as a return to form for the director. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case.
Killer Joe plays out much like a stage production. There is a shortage of atmosphere because the reliance falls entirely upon the extended periods of dialogue rather than any particular technique in the cinematography or use of music. I can forgive a film like that if it has interesting characters, but Killer Joe carries no such thing. Killer Joe's story focuses around the titular character's planned murder of Adele, the matriarch of the Smith family. Much of the dialogue focuses upon clarifying the complicated relationship between the members of the family as they find themselves getting involved in the murder and the titular Joe Cooper begins to involve himself with the young Dottie Smith. The structure of the family relationship is familiar and there isn't much time to develop any of the characters beyond the archetypes they are, meaning that it is left to the cast to save the film. Killer Joe has some impeccably talented actors, but they're not enough to assist a production that just won't support them on any level.
Killer Joe is a steadily-paced film, but there is rarely anything that actually happens in the film. The murder conspiracy at the heart of the narrative has a neo-noir element to it as does the dark colour scheme in the night time sequences and slow burning atmosphere, but rather than putting any major development into the characters there are characters who are presented as being equally relevant and arbitrary to each other. Everyone in the story is simply a McGuffin to move the narrative rather than any kind of actual character. The most developed characters are Joe Cooper and Dottie Smith, and yet Joe Cooper is kept too elusive and mysterious to understand all that much of while Dottie Smith is much of a background archetype. Since the characters are all relatively meaningless and few of them are all that likable for any reason, there is little reason to care about any of them. Ultimately, audiences are left with a slow film full of uninteresting and unlikable characters where essentially nothing happens, and what does happen is effectively cliche and lifeless. This is the experience that is Killer Joe, and as a result there is no atmospheric engagement to draw in audiences who have seen it all before or are desensitized to the mildly explicit use of blood.
But I will give some credit to some of the stylish elements in Killer Joe. Despite its budgetary limitations, William Friedkin's eye for imagery helps to make the Southern Gothic nature of the story into a reality. The scenery is dilapidated and the colour scheme is very dry in the day and a dark shade of blue in the night, making the story feel grim. The actors prove themselves able to embrace this tone, even if the lack of character development stands in the way of allowing any major impact to take effect.
Dottie Smith is the only majorly interesting character of the film since she is the one really innocent character in the narrative. Despite supporting the notion of her mother being murdered, this simply stems from the violence in Southern social norms which she has accepted as natural, yet she still finds a way to maintain her innocence in the process. Juno Temple captures this complicated mindset with such a sweet and innocent demeanour which becomes more fragile as Joe Cooper becomes more involved in her life. Juno Temple captures this with a very restrained and emotionally withdrawn nature, yet she intensifies it profusely when she is confronted with very personal insecurities and uncertainty. Juno Temple perfectly captures the nature of Dottie Smith's shattered innocence with the most soul of any character in the film, making herself the most consistently engaging presence
Matthew McConaughey is also in solid form. Though the story is far too subtle with the nature of "Killer" Joe Cooper to be fully embraced, Matthew McConaughey works to keep him elusive and very professional about his job as a contract killer, showing his darker side only at selective moments in the film. There isn't enough screen time for him to really captivate audiences as he should, but the actor shows an inherently dark nature which is very unlike that of his more stereotypical persona from his better-known films from the turn of the decade. Matthew McConaughey shows a more twisted dramatic flair than ever before in Killer Joe, taking a step closer to the dramatic charisma that would lead him to Academy Award recognition in later years.
Emile Hirsch delivers a deeply engaged an intense performance. Though his character is a very familiar one, Emile Hirsch manages to keep consistently in touch with the character Chris Smith by consistently conveying his constant sense of fear and insecurity. He is constantly under threat by the enforcers out to get him and the family he has brought his issues to, and he is constantly physical with his expression of frustration. He also shares a powerful chemistry with Thomas Hayden Church who too is a predictably powerful presence in a role empowered by the way he says so much through the use of very few words. Gina Gershon also delivers a strong performance in one of the best efforts of her career. She plays Sharla Smith as the sheer epitome of white trash and sleaze within the Smith household with a careless and self-indulgent nature which is as bleak as the world around her.
Killer Joe wrings some strong performances out of its inherently talented cast, but due to its unlikable characters and slow pace, audiences are left with a atmospherically-bereft story in which so little happens.
In fact, the outline of the story is the only shocking aspect to Killer Joe as it's carried out with frustrating ineptitude and amateurism. Friedkin reportedly would only shoot a maximum of two takes for most scenes and the movie seems to suffer the consequences of these decisions, making Killer Joe feel more like an unrehearsed play than a bona fide film. There are several drawn-out scenes where the actors engage in long-winded, unintelligible dialogue while appearing to have no consensus on the scene's tone, making their interactions feel very clunky and unnatural. This lack of organic chemistry is further weakened by Emile Hirsch's dreadful performance. Juno Temple does stand out with a very nice performance as Dottie and Haden Church is likable as the hopelessly dumb father, but they still can't save the film. The cinematography looks sloppy as though a film student was messing around with the focus, aperture, and color filter (shots are either overly bright, heavily saturated, super fuzzy, or sometimes simultaneously all three) giving the movie a low-rent quality, which is only worsened by the choreography.
The film has been noted for its intense violence, yet the violence is embarrassingly unconvincing and cheesy. There is a scene where Hirsch's character gets beaten up by two thug bikers and reacts to a kick to the face that visibly misses him by a foot. A close up of his face covered in corn syrup is then shown as the beating continues and reveals even more clearly they aren't making any contact, and at one point Hirsch has a delayed response to one of the strikes. Another example of how cheap the violence is during the climax where Joe, in a psychotic rage, mercilessly pulverizes Chris's face with a tin can and he's revealed to have a perfectly-shaped face afterwards with fake blood brushed over it. No swelling, no disfigurement, nor any kind of sign to accurately indicate the trauma of such a savage beating, just a few simple fake blood brushes over the face. Killer Joe was given an NC-17 for two scenes: the phony tin can beating, and because a woman is forced to fellate a chicken leg held near a man's crotch (an image that has been done over and over in a lot of movies).
To give films like this an NC-17 rating while giving more extreme films (Hostel 2, Bruno, etc.) an R is totally random and exemplifies the MPAA's futility. High school-age viewers under 18 will be more likely to yawn at the film's lame violent effects and smirk at the film's silly poultry scene. Killer Joe amounts to being a derisive movie due to a pitiful attempt of adapting a provocative play into a successful picture. Viewers should just skip it and watch Friedkin's The Exorcist instead; it is everything Killer Joe isn't.