In Killer Joe, Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) a shortsighted, unintelligent and self centered younger man gets himself deep in debt to some formidable figures. Neither he, nor anyone in his family have any money to speak of. When approached for help, his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) tells him he's never had $1,000.00 at one time in his whole life. Chris has an idea however. He heard about a police officer named Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) or "Killer Joe." who does contract killing for $20,000.00 per victim. Chris reasons that they can hire Joe to kill his mother (Ansel's ex wife) and collect her life insurance, since they're under the impression that Dottie (Chris' sister/Ansel's daughter) is the beneficiary and they can easily get the money from her. Ansel insists that they split the take with his current wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon.) Chris agrees, although he and Sharla hate each other.
They set up a meeting with Killer Joe, but Ansel is unable to get out of work, leaving Dottie (Juno Temple) to greet Joe. He finds her attempting to imitate Bruce Lee's moves while watching one of his movies. "That looks hard." he remarks and advises her to get an instructor. He's immediately fascinated with the strangely gifted Dottie, who asks point blank if he's going to kill her mother. When he tells her he doesn't know yet, she tells him that she remembers her mother trying to kill her as a baby. She asks him about the most exciting thing that's ever happened to him, he describes a police call he responded to, where he encountered a man who set his own genitals on fire to teach his cheating wife a lesson. "Was he alright?" Dottie asks, and Joe coolly responds, "No, No, he was not alright. He set his genitals on fire." Chris calls the house and asks Joe to meet them at a pool hall near Ansel's work. He agrees, but adds "Don't change plans on me again."
They have a meeting and Chris explains what they need done, also telling Joe that they don't have the money upfront but can pay him out of the insurance settlement. Joe isn't interested in this at all, telling Chris and Ansel that the deal is $25,000.00 up front and not negotiable. Before leaving he has an idea though, and suggests they think about "a retainer." He tells them he can hold onto Dottie until the $25,000.00 is paid. Chris and Ansel discuss the idea and agree to do it. Ansel even reasons it might be good for her. They arrange to have Joe meet Dottie for dinner at Ansel's house, neglecting to tell Dottie that she and Joe will be the only ones at the dinner until moments before it happens.
Dottie finds the deal agreeable, but complications arise when local crime figure Digger Soames, comes looking for Chris to collect his money. The life insurance settlement doesn't pay out like Chris thought it would, setting up a violent confrontation.
"Killer Joe" presents us with an interest contrast. Chris' family is like a competition to see who's the most shallow and self centered. Ansel is the dull witted centerpiece that holds the family together. Dottie and Sharla live with Ansel, while Chris is the visitor, normally living with his mother. As Sharla points out, when he visits, he takes charge of everyone in the household. They tolerate him, as he's part of their chosen drama, but he remains an agitant. Even the dog doesn't like him. They all seem to agree that Chris isn't good at much except getting himself into trouble.
Sharla is Chris' most obvious and certainly most vocal adversary. She's hardly in a position to judge anyone else as it turns out she's likely the most duplicitous member of the family, a fact which only comes out because Joe is more informed than anyone in the family, and forces the issue. Gina Gershon really brings her to life, from business as usual, to gleefully combative to weathering sadistic humiliation. She's more intelligent than the family and attempts to use that to her benefit. We know that this is a different kind of character when she answers the door half naked and when Chris is upset that she's not wearing pants, she explains, "I didn't know who was at the door." She has plans that extend outside the family, although they are stalled by Killer Joe's detective work.
Emile Hirsch's Chris begins as our main character. It's his problem that accelerates the action. At the start he already owes money to a guy who is going to kill him if he doesn't pay up. It's clear that no one cares for his mother very much and the idea to kill her for the life insurance seems like his only solution. This isn't an idea he could think of himself, however, and we find later that the insurance scam, and the idea of calling in Killer Joe, were actually suggested to him by an untrustworthy source, and he ends up in doubly in over his head, and just as broke. Chris and his family, for the most part behave like a family of snarling dogs. The only person he seems to care about is his sister Dottie, and even that concern seems to arise too little, too late, and twisted into more of a possessive concern than a caring one. He tries to coerce Dottie to run away with him, but pays little attention to her opinion on the matter.
Dottie's character is an interesting one. She's treated like a child with special needs, yet she seems more aware of the whole situation than anyone else. She figures things out long before they're given away. She knows that Ansel and Chris are planning to kill her mother, and that Sharla has a boyfriend on the side. Her father and brother offer her up as a retainer to Killer Joe, and she takes it all in stride. She actually seems quite interested in Joe, perhaps planning on Joe getting her out of her rotten family. She's certainly the best part of her family, although it's in their nature to underestimate her. They can't quite comprehend that she has her own ideas, and will at some point have too much of being treated as their pawn.
Matthew McConaughey is terrific as Joe, and this probably the best role of his career. He presents a character who appears to be everything that Chris' dysfunctional family is not. He doesn't get upset or quibble over trivia. He simply states his position quietly and courteously. He has no use for the squabbling chaos. He reminds Chris and Ansel twice that he would appreciate them paying some attention to the details they agree upon. Killer Joe is a dangerous and serious man, although towards the end we see his psychopathic leanings come to the surface when he demands the truth from Sharla. He's far more twisted than the family, insisting that they all sit down for a family dinner, knowing that in all likelihood, he may end up killing them all. Killer Joe presents the idea of evil as very polite and approachable, less concerned with the deed itself than the payment. We don't even see Joe kill Chris' mother, as if to say that the murder is just uninteresting to Joe, simply another job.
We follow Chris for the bulk of the movie, watching his panic bring the plot into action. He has the chance to reconsider. Joe tells him "Call it off and you'll never see me again." Of course, having just been assured by Digger Soames that he only has a couple days to get the money together, he declines the offer and tells Joe to carry on. With a little more time, he does reconsider but it's already too late, leaving only the matter of Joe's payment. He decides to cancel the deal even though he's already received the services promised, and unwisely perhaps, thinks all it takes is having a gun of his own.
It becomes clear though, that this is more Dottie's story than Chris'. She's a character who has formed her own peculiar morality, started perhaps by the memory of her mother trying to kill her when she was an infant. The fact that Joe kills people for money seems fascinating to her. He certainly represents an existence very different than the one she's had so far. Joe is a very active character and shows an intelligence that's lacking in her family surroundings. She finds his brand of evil charismatic, as if he's a dark variation on the knight in shining armor. She's used to being thought of as a possession, and the retainer status given by Chris and Ansel doesn't seem shocking to her. She simply imposes her own terms on the arrangement. Although historically close to Chris, she isn't interested in running away with him, as we learn when Joe announces their wedding plans. No one has an objection except Chris, who insists she's running away with him. When Dottie picks Joe, Chris informs her that she has no say in the matter. Finally, she corrects him, and Ansel as well, whose complete failure to stick up for his family has become obscene. Joe realizes he's lost control of the situation as well, and has no choice but to see he can't control everything.
"Killer Joe" ends up being an interesting reflection on the nature of choice and of evil. Chris and his family are introduced as passive characters with a choice to make. It appears as a simple problem of balance, Chris weighing the life of his despised mother against his own. Initially both he and Ansel make the decision with little trouble. It's an idea, not an actual deed. Anything over $1,000.00 seems like a fantasy to Ansel. None of them are required to get their hands dirty. Killer Joe will take care of it and they can be bystanders. However, lacking the money to get the deal going, they do have to get their hands dirty, allowing Joe to consider Dottie as his retainer. This agreement is certainly made with the idea in mind that the money is a sure thing, but that they would agree to it under the best conditions makes it no less reprehensible. They're exerting control that isn't theirs over another life, just as certainly as Joe does when he kills people. Of course they don't realize this, Chris' family (with the exception of Sharla) is not intellectually capable of much calculating. They come to their conclusions after the fact, when they're already surrounded by consequences. Once they engage Joe, an active force of evil, the time to reconsider is over. They're all too busy pondering their own self interest to consider such questions, at least, until it's too late. It's a very dark, brutal and graphic cautionary tale.