Tim Grierson on the Devilishly Dark Thriller “Killer Joe”

Killer Joe

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We’re all suckers for redemption stories. When celebrities have a fall from grace, part of us wants to see them pick themselves up, apologize for their indiscretions, and emerge a wiser, smarter, better person. Likewise, plenty of fiction revolves around characters who start off as bad people but eventually see the error of their ways. (“A Christmas Carol” wouldn’t be an enduring holiday classic if Scrooge ended up as rotten as he started out.) But sometimes, fiction offers us people who don’t want redemption — they’re quite content being miserable wretches. Their lives may not be inspirational, but they can be lowdown dirty fun.

“Killer Joe,” which opens on Friday, is filled with such horrible characters. The movie is a giddy rush of bad behavior that allows us to live vicariously through these horrible human beings. You wouldn’t want to be these people, and you definitely wouldn’t endorse anything they do. But for a couple hours, it’s a pleasure to be in their nasty company.

The movie is based on the play of the same name by Tracy Letts, who won a Pulitzer for another work, “August: Osage County.” “Killer Joe” is set on the outskirts of Dallas where apparently only the thoughtless, the classless, and the desperate reside. We meet Chris (Emile Hirsch), a directionless young man who needs money quickly to pay off debts to some violent underworld figures. But he has a plan: His mother, whom he despises, has a sizable life insurance policy that will go to his underage sister Dottie (Juno Temple) in the case of her death. So he teams up with his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), who’s now married to trailer-trash Sharla (Gina Gershon), to hire a disreputable cop named Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to kill the mother.

If that setup sounds reminiscent of a Quentin Tarantino film — not to mention a dozen heist-gone-wrong pictures — you’re in the right ballpark for where “Killer Joe” goes. But the film, directed by William Friedkin, is less about its twists than it is about reveling in the remorselessness of its characters. And revel it does: The film is rated NC-17 for its violence and sexual content, and there’s a dark, kinky edge to the proceedings almost from the beginning. Perhaps even more shocking, though, is how funny “Killer Joe” is. Friedkin and his great cast have conspired to create a world in which we chuckle at the characters’ wickedness while being hypnotized and horrified by their more demented behavior. If I’m being intentionally vague, it’s because the shocks in “Killer Joe” are best experienced without any advanced knowledge, but know that while this movie can be viciously depraved, the amoral activities you’ll witness spring rather frighteningly organically from the characters. Although “Killer Joe” can be a touch jokey from time to time, on the whole it’s a perversely intoxicating character-driven thriller in which the threat of something horrible happening forever lingers in the air.

Because the film’s tone is such a tricky one, the performances are crucial to maintaining the spell. Happily, none of the actors puts a foot wrong. This isn’t always easy when you’re playing people who are, for the most part, stupid — it can be difficult not to make them come across as unrealistic or caricatures. But the cast of “Killer Joe” gives their characters a weird kind of integrity — they may be despicable fools, but they’re very clear about who they are. You’ll end up laughing at these people a lot, but you also never feel like you can completely trust them, which gives the movie a worrisome edginess that makes it hard to ever fully relax during “Killer Joe.”

The film’s livewire nastiness is embodied by Joe Cooper, brilliantly played by McConaughey. I’ve mentioned before what a roll the actor has been on lately, and his performance in “Killer Joe” is particularly striking for what risks it takes. Long known as the star of disposable romantic comedies, McConaughey has tried to change his image with strong turns in “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Magic Mike,” but neither of those roles required the bravery that Joe Cooper does. When we first meet Joe, he immediately establishes himself as the smartest, most cold-blooded individual in the room. But as “Killer Joe” rolls along, his sinister agenda starts to assert itself, particularly when he eyes young, alluring little Dottie. It’s not unusual for a likeable star to take on a despicable character, but Joe is a particularly sick monster — if McConaughey’s performance hadn’t worked, it could have been an embarrassment for him and a disaster for the film. But McConaughey is disturbingly confident as this psychopath, maybe in part because Joe doesn’t see himself that way — like everybody in “Killer Joe,” he just does what he does. These people don’t believe in redemption — they don’t believe in much of anything. This movie may offend you, but it also may leave you feeling grateful. We all have our darker sides, but none of us are as bad as these inglorious bastards.


Grow TFU

Adulting Like You Mean It

Commuters makes its debut on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Jared Warner, Nick Ciavarella, and Tim Dean were once a part of Murderfist, a group of comedy writers, actors, producers, parents, and reluctant adults. Together with InstaMiniSeries’s Nikki Borges, they’re making their IFC Comedy Crib debut with the refreshingly-honest and joyfully-hilarious Commuters. The webseries follows thirtysomethings Harris and Olivia as they brave the waters of true adulthood, and it’s right on point.

Jared, Nick, Nikki and Tim were kind enough to answer a few questions about Commuters for us. Here’s a snippet of that conversation…


IFC: How would you describe Commuters to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Nick: Two 30-somethings leave the Brooklyn life behind, and move to the New Jersey suburbs in a forced attempt to “grow up.” But they soon find out they’ve got a long way to go to get to where they want to be.

IFC: How would you describe Commuters to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jared: It’s a show about how f*cking stupid people who think they are smart can be.

IFC: What’s your origin story? When did you all meet and how long have you been working together?

Jared: Nick, Tim, and I were all in the sketch group Murderfist since, what, like 2004? God. Anyway, Tim and Nick left the group to pursue other frivolous things, like children and careers, but we all enjoyed writing together and kept at it. We were always more interested in storytelling than sketch comedy lends itself to, which led to our webseries Jared Posts A Personal. That was a show about being in your 20s and embracing the chaos of being young in the city. Commuters is the counterpoint, i guess. Our director Adam worked at Borders (~THE PAST!!~) with Tim, came out to a Murderfist show once, and we’ve kept him imprisoned ever since.

IFC: What was the genesis of Commuters?

Tim: Jared had an idea for a series about the more realistic, less romantic aspects of being in a serious relationship.  I moved out of the city to the suburbs and Nick got engaged out in LA.   We sort of combined all of those facets and Commuters was the end result.

IFC: How would Harris describe Olivia?

Jared: Olivia is the smartest, coolest, hottest person in the world, and Harris can’t believe he gets to be with her, even though she does overreact to everything and has no chill. Like seriously, ease up. It doesn’t always have to be ‘a thing.’

IFC: How would Olivia describe Harris?

Nikki:  Harris is smart, confident with a dry sense of humor but he’s also kind of a major chicken shit…. Kind of like if Han Solo and Barney Rubble had a baby.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Nikki:  I think this is the most accurate portrayal of what a modern relationship looks like. Expectations for what your life is ‘supposed to look like’ are confusing and often a let down but when you’re married to your best friend, it’s going to be ok because you will always find a way to make each other laugh.

IFC: Is the exciting life of NYC twentysomethings a sweet dream from which we all must awake, or is it a nightmare that we don’t realize is happening until it’s over?

Tim: Now that i’ve spent time living in the suburbs, helping to raise a two year old, y’all city folk have no fucking clue how great you’ve got it.

Nikki: I think of it similar to how I think about college. There’s a time and age for it to be glorious but no one wants to hang out with that 7th year senior. Luckily, NYC is so multifaceted that you can still have an exciting life here but it doesn’t have to be just what the twentysomethings are doing (thank god).

Jared: New York City is a garbage fire.

See the whole season of Commuters right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


C'mon Fellas

A Man Mansplains To Men

Why Baroness von Sketch Show is a must-see.

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Mansplaining is when a man takes it upon himself to explain something to a woman that she already knows. It happens a lot, but it’s not going to happen here. Ladies, go ahead and skip to the end of this post to watch a free episode of IFC’s latest addition, Baroness von Sketch Show.

However, if you’re a man, you might actually benefit from a good mansplanation. So take a knee, lean in, and absorb the following wisdom.

No Dicks

Baroness von Sketch Show is made entirely by women, therefore this show isn’t focused on men. Can you believe it? I know what you’re thinking: how will we know when to laugh if the jokes aren’t viewed through the dusty lens of the patriarchy? Where are the thinly veiled penis jokes? Am I a bad person? In order: you will, nowhere, and yes.

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Huge Balls

Did you know that there’s more to life than poop jokes, sex jokes, body part jokes? I mean, those things are all really good things, natch, and totally edgy. But Baroness von Sketch Show does something even edgier. It holds up a brutal funhouse mirror to our everyday life. This is a bulls**t world we made, fellas.


Oh Canada

After you watch the Canadian powerhouses of Baroness von Sketch Show and think to yourself “Dear god, this is so real” and “I’ve gotta talk about this,” do yourself a favor and think a-boot your options: Refrain from sharing your sage wisdom with any woman anywhere (believe us, she gets it). Instead, tell a fellow bro and get the mansplaining out of your system while also spreading the word about a great show.

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Dudes, that’s the deal.
Women, start reading again here:

Check out the preview episode of Baroness von Sketch Show and watch the series premiere August 2 on IFC.


Happy Tears

Binge Don’t Cringe

Catch up on episodes of Documentary Now! and Portlandia.

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Photo Credit: GIFs via GIPHY

A brain can only take so much.

Every five minutes, all day, every day, ludicrously stressful headlines push our mental limits as we struggle to adapt to a reality that seems increasingly less real. What’s a mind to do when simple denial just isn’t good enough anymore?

Radical suggestion: repeal and replace. And by that we mean take all the bad news that keeps you up at night, press pause, and substitute it with some genuine (not nervous, for a change) laughter. Here are some of the issues on our mind.

Gender Inequality

Feminist bookstore owners by day, still feminist bookstore owners by night, Toni and Candace show the male gaze who’s boss. Learn about their origin story (SPOILER: there’s an epic dance battle) and see what happens when their own brand of empowerment gets out of hand.


From Candace’s heart attack to the rise of the rawvolution, this Portlandia episode proves that healthcare is vital.

Peaceful Protests

Too many online petitions, too little time? Get WOKE with Fred and Carrie when they learn how to protest.

What Could Have Been

Can’t say the name “Clinton” without bursting into tears? Documentary Now!’s masterfully political “The Bunker” sheds a cozy new light on the house that Bill and Hill built. Just pretend you don’t know how the story really ends.

Fake News

A healthy way to break the high-drama news cycle is to switch over to “Dronez”, which has all the thrills of ubiquitous adventure journalism without any of the customary depression.

The more you watch, the better you feel. So get started on past episodes of Documentary Now! and Portlandia right now at IFC.com and the IFC app.

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