“Killer Joe” is like striking a match. From the very first second, there is fire—a burst of flame that initially takes you by surprise and then draws you in as that flickering light slowly makes its way down the matchstick. It gets closer to your fingers. You feel the heat intensify as it inches nearer and nearer.
And with “Killer Joe,” once that flame makes contact with your fingertips and singes the skin’s surface with painful sensations, you can’t drop the match for some reason. You allow it to caress your fingers and consume you, eventually leaving blisters and scars where the flame once burned—memories of that fire imprinted onto you like a brand.
This describes “Killer Joe” perfectly. During, I could not look away. Afterwards, I struggled to shake off what I had just seen.
Director William Friedkin created one of the premier horror films of our time with “The Exorcist.” In his visceral, NC-17 take on Tracy Letts’s play “Killer Joe,” the director compliments his history with a whole new brand of terror.
But the man truly behind “Killer Joe’s” terrorizing ways is not the one with the pen or the man behind the camera, but rather Matthew McConaughey—the actor taking on the role of a charismatic yet chilling police detective Joe Cooper, who is also a killer for hire.
McConaughey, who had me in tears of laughter during his brilliant performance in “Magic Mike” and impressed me in “Bernie,” continues his stellar year of proving he is an amazing character actor with one of his most memorable roles to date.
Everything takes place within McConaughey’s devilish eyes that flicker with charm and then glare into your soul with unmatched, bone-chilling depravity. A staring contest between Killer Joe and Tom Hardy’s Bane from “The Dark Knight Rises” would be an immensely frightening competition to behold.
But in terms of actual human immorality, Killer Joe Cooper stands strikingly solitary compared to Bane’s massive plan of terrorism and fear. In a smaller setting, with fewer victims, Killer Joe’s horrific actions feel intimate and real.
He’s a true villain, masked with a marvelous charisma that easily conceals the devil inside. This devil is slowly revealed until “Killer Joe’s” lengthy, powerfully haunting climax unleashes the wickedness within and had me cringing, squirming, and audibly reacting in my seat—a mixture of shock, disgust, and odd, uncomfortable laughter at the movie’s degenerate sense of humor.
I almost didn’t want to be laughing, or even enjoying much of the activity that takes place in “Killer Joe,” but Friedkin handles this heavy material with just the right touches of dark comedy and sadistic exploration. It’s also brilliant filmmaking, cinematically capturing the claustrophobic entrapment of trailer park life in the south—the final scene within a trailer feels so contained I was almost suffocating.
But it’s McConaughey who makes “Killer Joe” exactly what it should be, delivering Letts’s dialogue with troubling ease that grows in intensity and eventually capturing one of the more iconic villains to ever intimidate the screen. He transcends the material into something unexpectedly awesome. Southern-fried evil has never felt so fun.
Greg Vellante is a film critic for The Eagle Tribune.