Insurance policies are funny things. A financial safety net for the chosen few – legalised theft for the rest of us! With that in mind, spare a thought for the Smith family of Trailerpark-ville Texas, whose wrangle with a family member’s life insurance policy eventually has a severely detrimental effect on their dubious family unit.

Ansel Smith (Thomas Hayden Church) is separated from the mother of his children and has remarried his new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon). When not taking orders at the local Pizza Parlour, Sharla resides in the family trailer home and has a quirky habit of answering the door exposed from the hips down.

Also living with her ‘Pa’, is Ansel’s daughter Dottie (Juno Temple). Even though she is 20 years old, Dottie’s eccentricities, a meld of sleepwalking, almost psychic perception and childlike honesty, serve to promote her as a much younger girl.

Completing the ‘happy home’ is Ansel’s son and senior of the siblings, Chris (Emile Hirsch). It seems he is detested by everyone bar Dottie (Even the chained dog outside barks furiously at him!)

After being faced with his step mothers bush at the doorstep when returning home, Chris approaches his father in somewhat of a predicament. It seems his and Dottie’s mother (who conspicuously remains off camera) has fleeced his latest business venture. Her selfish act of stealing, then selling off, his 2 oz of cocaine means his gangster bosses are a little miffed.

Eager to keep his knee caps intact, Chris hatches a plan to his old man which involves employing a certain plain clothes officer, Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who moonlights as a hit man. Basically it is a proposal to ‘knock off’ of their "Mamma".

The resulting payout from her life assurance policy would mean they would pocket a healthy $50k and be left with an estimated $30k for themselves after they had paid ‘Killer Joe’ for his services.

Joe, however, is a staunch professional and requires full payment in cash up front. This is not negotiable. Not under ANY circumstances. No sob stories, no flexibility - just cash up front. The deal seems dead before it can be agreed. That is until..... A bespoke contract with a ‘retainer’ is discussed (Joes idea). It seems the cherub-like qualities of Dottie have burrowed through Joes icy exterior. Lay Dottie on the line as collateral and you boys just may have yourselves a deal…

Don’t be repelled by its rather languid classification in some quarters as a banal ‘comedy thriller’. If ever there was a movie to define the dubious "Trailer Park Noir" subgenre, this is it!

Originally a ‘stage play’ of the same name, KILLER JOE notably retains some of its theatrical essence. The final climatic act, for example, is a protracted sequence with our 5 protagonists confined to the trailers dining area. Regardless of the story’s roots, Friedkin still successfully manages to cultivate an enthralling piece of cinema from Tracy Letts original play. With ‘Rom Com’ poster boy McConaughey in the lead, one could be forgiven for failing to appreciate the true nature of the movie. The humour is liberal but devilishly dark, while the sex and violence (bar a couple of explosive instances) is intensely psychological.

Friedkin’s direction cunningly coerces the viewer into uncomfortable voyeurism when watching Dotty in varying states of undress. (Although she is a REAL cutie, the context conveys an uncomfortable sense of intrusion) But as the narrative perversely twists and turns, Dotty’s multiple exploitations blossom into something quite unexpected.

The whimsical sister and daughter aside, KILLER JOE’s characters are fascinatingly loathsome yet hugely watchable throughout the 97 minute runtime. It follows then that great credit has to go to Denise Chamain for casting the main players in their respective roles.

Thomas Hayden Church is brilliantly despondent as the year weary Ansel. Ambitions have been long sacrificed for a life filled with ‘Monster Truck’ TV viewing and earning "beer money" at the local welders. Gina Gershon as the shamelessly immoral Sharla, exuded acute self-interest and injected a shot of energy with her vitriolic hatred of her stepson, Chris.

Of Chris, Emile Hirsch conjures a great performance. While initially portraying an affable rogue, he soon descends into a truly selfish degenerate who causes damage that his belated self-reproach cannot restore. Ultimately it is Dotty and Killer Joe himself that galvanise the movie.

Starting with the leading man; Joe’s excessive courteousness, embellished by his southern dapperness, paradoxically promotes a distressing sense of menace.

But then there is the darling Dotty. Juno Temple exudes an enigmatic innocence that is arguably tarnished by her callous agreement to the nefarious plan. The British actress nailed the role (and accent) beautifully, while purveying mysterious unpredictability with aplomb.

Although the movie can hardly be described as gore laden, the dark tone coupled with unconventional sexual deviance (violently forced oral sex with a fried chicken leg for example), means the 18 certificate is justly applied. The initial ‘love scene’ between Dotty and Joe, although largely devoid of physical contact, is disturbingly dialogued with both parties fantasizing that they are 12 years old… (At least it stop’ll-ed short of necrophilia I guess!!)

My access to the movie was an online stream and as such the 36 minutes of bonus material was somewhat clumsily bunged together. I am led to believe the majority of this will indeed be honed somewhat before being committed to the retailing DVD.

It consisted of chats with the 5 main players, Matthew McConuaghey, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Hayden Church, Gina Gershon and Juno Temple. It followed an obvious structure of them talking us through how they got the role, what they thought of the story along with their thoughts on working with other cast members. Most interestingly though, was their appreciative words for ‘Billy’ Friedkin as a person and as a director. It offered a glimpse into his directorial style, touching on his ‘one take’ manner which he has become synonymous with. Disappointingly, the man who essentially spawned the idea originally, award winning playwright Tracy Betts, is omitted from these clips. Given the interviews were conducted ‘on set’ his absence is understandable. Even so, I would have enjoyed hearing the dramatist’s perspective of seeing his work making the transition from stage to silver screen (or Digital Versatile Disc for the vast majority of us!).

I have to say, KILLER JOE really took me by surprise. It is an absorbing combination of some intriguingly peculiar characters, incised with mental and physical brutality, playing out a twisted story of greed and desperation. Stetson’s and corrupt cops aside, KFC will never taste the same again!!!

Review by Marc Lissenburg

Released by Entertainment One
Region 2 - PAL
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review