Killer Joe (2011)

Posted on August 27, 2014




Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is in trouble. He got robbed, and he’s unable to pay off the drug boss for whom he deals. He comes up with a plan to kill his mother so that his mentally under-developed sister Dottie (Juno Temple) will inherit their mother’s insurance money.

He gets his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) to help out. Ansel and Chris’ mom are divorced. Ansel is now married to Sharla (Gina Gershon), and Sharla knows about the plan.

Chris has heard of a guy, a cop who moonlights as a hitman, who could do the job for them. They get this Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to meet with them. Turns out they don’t have the up-front money. Joe agrees to take a retainer. In return for the retainer, he will kill Chris and Dottie’s mother. When Chris gets the insurance money, he can pay Joe.

Dottie is the retainer.

Short Version

This is a pitch-black comedy about family.


Long Version

Chris is an interesting example of writer Tracy Letts (who wrote both the stage play and the screenplay) juxtaposing an unpleasant character with an even more unpleasant character. When we meet Chris, we also meet Sharla. Sharla has no problem walking around half-naked in front of her stepson. He’s in her home, it’s the middle of the night, he can just deal with it. Chris wants to talk with his father, not his step-mother, and just wants her to put some pants on.

To me, despite his foul mouth, Chris seemed like a relatively normal guy in this introduction. Few of us want to see our parents, or stepparents, without their pants. It seems completely normal to resent a stepparent.

As a momentary aside – Stepparents, it gets better. I was nine when my stepfather married my mom. Now he’s my dad, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love the guy. For the purposes of this article, I’m remembering when I resented him, and recalling friends talking about a stepparent. Stepparents are awesome. Thanks for stepping up and being someone’s parent.

Sharla, on the other hand, is rude and abrasive. The only reason she’s awake at that hour is because she wants another beer. She clearly resents Chris’ existence at least as much as he resents hers, putting her squarely in the company of other “evil” stepmothers.

So right off, in the introduction, the writer shows us Chris’ situation. If we think his environment made Chris a bad person, then we’ve let him off the hook. Maybe we even sympathize with him a little. By comparing bad with worse, the writer has gotten us along for the ride.


Chris is also very careful to spell out how awful his biological mother his – her drug abuse, her drinking, her prostitution, her inability to care for Dottie, who has special needs. He has to spell it all out in order to convince Ansel, who is also awful, but in a passive way. Ansel’s objections to murder have more to do with lethargy than with ethics and morals. He’s perfectly willing for his ex-wife to die, provided someone else does the work and he won’t get caught.

Dottie doesn’t much like her mother. There are strong hints that Dottie’s mental issues stem from maternal abuse, so we’re inclined to be sympathetic toward her. She doesn’t actively want her mother dead, but she has no problems with Chris’ plan.

Even “Killer Joe” isn’t all bad. He’s very polite when he first arrives. He picks up on Dottie’s innocence and the disparity between her mental age and her physical age, and he actively reassures her that he’s there to meet Chris. He has an invitation. He’s not an intruder. He’s a little surprised when Dottie asks if he’s going to kill her mom, but he continues to speak softly and be a gentleman.

It’s only when Joe insists on Dottie as a retainer that things get twisted up. Why an older man like Joe has any romantic or sexual interest in a mentally underdeveloped teenager is unclear, but his interest is immediate and obvious.


As you can imagine, once we got that far, we had to watch the movie to the end. McConaughey brings a sense of menace to the character of Joe that, even in his courteous moments we’re aware that he is far, far more dangerous than any of the other characters. Again, the writer has given us a comparison, and played to our tendency to root for underdogs.

We had no idea where these characters were going to go, or whether their better angels would win out. We wanted to know what would happen to poor, innocent, Dottie.

The story focuses on relationships. Everything is about what makes a family and how we choose our families as adults. The story drives us, ultimately, to the point where Dottie must make her own choice.

At the same time, this is sort of a master class on characters. That’s hardly surprising considering that Tracy Letts wrote the play twenty years before this film released. There is no substitute for time when developing story and character. Plus, the audience at a play tells you what works and what doesn’t immediately, live and in person, eight shows a week.


Chris loves his sister. Ansel loves Sharla and his kids. Dottie is a sweetheart. Sharla is kind to Dottie. Joe is polite and professional except where Dottie is concerned. He also loses his mind a bit in the climax of the film. They all have positive, relatable, points in the midst of their misery and machinations. It draws us onward, as events spiral out of control.


This movie was originally rated NC-17. The DVD release was re-cut to be R-rated, so it could be carried in more stores. There are still some very brutal scenes. Be warned.

This is a bravely told story, one that was never going to find a wide audience. Although it’s not for the faint of heart, it’s worth a rental.


Enjoy the Site?

If not, I appreciate feedback on everything from content to format. If you do enjoy it, my wife and I do appreciate donations of any amount.


Posted in: Movies