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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.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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