Review originally published Sept. 13, 2011 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2011 Toronto Film Festival.
"Killer Joe" connective tissue eventually saps all the tension from the work, and as we barrel down toward the finish line you're just as likely to find yourself disgusted as you are intrigued. The closing 20 minutes in particular seem to be less about storytelling than depravity, but to what end? Why are the characters making such odd choices? And why do all the actors feel like they had about an hour prior to shooting the movie to prepare? "Killer Joe" is a disjointed film that gets progressively worse -- not exactly the prescription for hilarity.
The title refers to the character played by Matt McConaughey, Joe Cooper, a hired gun who also happens to be a detective with the Dallas Police Department. A trailer park family (and really, there's no other way to describe the hideous conditions the film has these miscreants residing in) decides to hire Joe for a job. That job? Killing mom for insurance money. Only there's a catch ... they don't have the cash to front Joe for the job. But no problem, because he'll take the youngest daughter as a sex retainer. Wait, what? Exactly. That's what we're dealing with here, BUT STILL, it wouldn't be a problem if actions linked back up to motivations (which ideally matched with logic).
None of that happens, though; Joe is hired, the retainer becomes a hostage, and her brother (Emile Hirsch) has second thoughts about this whole "kill mom / give up sister" business. Thomas Haden Church is the patriarch of this stunted little family, and his occasionally dry mutterings are about the only thing that resonate in the film. Emile Hirsch's character in particular comes off as unrealistic -- one moment he's protective, the next he's leaving the trailer so Joe can get a good look at his sister. He owes money all over town, but the insurance scam doesn't seem particularly linked to this issue.
There's a half-baked plan to escape all of this mess, though there's some chance Emile and his sister are on different pages there. Finally, there's a double-cross that's masquerading as a triple-cross, but to attempt to find meaning in this maelstrom is foolhardy.
William Friedkin ("The Exorcist," "The French Connection") can certainly lay claim to cultural touchstones, but this is one of his lesser works, much closer to directorial efforts such as "Jade" and "Rules of Engagement." Only the heartiest of dark souls will find any of this remotely entertaining, and only the kindest of intellects will see story where story wasn't considered. The kindest thing that can be said for "Killer Joe" is that Matt McConaughey turns in an interesting performance. A dark miss but a miss all the same.