The Essentials 2.0 – Killer Joe

Written by Alex Gibson on . Posted in Uncategorized

By John Smith

William Friedkin has become one of the most influential and important film makers in the business with a career that spans over 40 years. Some of his best known works are The French Connection from 1971, The Exorcist from 1973, and his extremely controversial Cruising from 1980. In 2011, and well into his seventies, William Friedkin along with playwright Tracy Letts created a devastatingly brutal film that succeeds in terms of writing and directing. It may not be any textbooks yet, but in this writer’s opinion, it is one of the better movies of the last decade.

In Dallas, Texas we find the deeply twisted Smith family who engage in more vices than the entirety of Las Vegas. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) may be the scuzziest of all and is also in major debt to the local crime lord. Chris’ brilliant idea to get the money he needs is to kill his mother and collect the $50,000 insurance money. His father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and ignorant sister Dottie (Juno Temple) soon jump on board and hire the mysterious cop/hitman “Killer” Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to take the murderous job. Things quickly go wrong as Chris’ own stupid mistakes and Joe’s aggressive relationship with the family begin to build to what may be one of the most shocking and uncomfortable climaxes ever put to film.

Killer Joe may be a difficult film to sit through thanks to its stomach churning content, but it’s also a perfect example of how to make a movie. Tracy Letts wrote the original stage play and then went on to write the screenplay after working with Friedkin on the 2006 film Bug. Letts and Friedkin are a match made in heaven and Killer Joe is an example of a near perfect movie. The tension in this movie is so tight and the scenes of violence and brutality so shocking only because it is so well written and executed.

People have asked me before, “If you were to teach a film class, what kind of example would you use?” My first response is always, alwaysKiller Joe. There are many movies whose stories move very slowly and bore the audience to tears, but this film sustains a mood of discomfort and mystery that will keep even the most jaded of viewer’s watching. The adaptation from the stage to the screen is evident in the long scenes of dialogue, but Friedkin’s attention to suspenseful detail and the actor’s dedication to character keeps the film immersive and different. I’d also go so far as to say this is the film that successfully rebooted McConaughey’s career. His performance alone is chilling and wonderfully psychotic.

While Killer Joe has really only been around for three years, it has already amassed a cult following and achieved high critical praise. Classic movies have to start somewhere, and I give this one an unending amount of respect. The content and unflinching brutality may turn some people off to the whole idea of the movie, but for the people who can stomach it, this may just be one of the most satisfying, stylistic, and tightly executed movies you’ll ever see.


John Smith is a film student at Temple University with an interest in screenwriting. I do appreciate the classics and take the time to see as many as I can, but I will probably be more interested in a horror film that’s been dug out of the deepest hole in film history.

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