In West Dallas, Texas, 22-year-old drug dealer Chris Smith comes to the house of his father Ansel and step-mother Sharla, after his mother, Adele, threw him out of her house. To make matters worse, Adele stole his cocaine and spent it on fixing her car, and now Chris is desperate to pay off his debt to his dealer, Digger Soames, so he decides to murder his mother to collect the $50,000 life insurance of which his younger sister Dottie is the sole beneficiary. Assuming Dottie would share the money with Chris and their father, Chris manages to rope the dim-witted Ansel into hiring Joe Cooper, a police detective who has a side career as a contract killer, to kill Adele (Ansel's ex-wife) to get the money. Chris and Ansel decide that after paying Joe from the proceeds of the life insurance policy, they will split the remainder four ways between themselves, Dottie, and Ansel's wife Sharla. Dottie hears the plan as they are talking, and agrees that it's a good idea.
The plan almost fails when Joe demands all of the money in advance, which of course Chris nor Ansel have. However, Joe is interested in the odd, childlike Dottie and offers to take her as a "retainer" until the insurance comes through. Through Dottie's interaction with Joe, it is revealed that Adele tried to kill Dottie once when she was an infant. Joe "dates" Dottie and then appears to be staying over at their home and having sex with her regularly. Chris has a change of heart and asks him to call off the hit, only to discover that Joe has already killed Adele. With Chris' reluctant help, Joe hides the body in a car and torches it.
After Adele's death is discovered, the family learns that the insurance beneficiary is actually Rex, Adele's boyfriend, rather than her daughter Dottie. Chris then admits he originally heard the details about the policy from Rex, who also told him about Joe. Ansel then realizes that Rex duped Chris into hiring Joe to kill Adele. Immediately afterwards, Chris tries to talk Dottie into running away with him to escape Digger, who has already had two of his goons severely beat Chris up for not having repaid him. Dottie says she will go with him, but she must see Joe again first.
After Ansel and Sharla return home from Adele's funeral, they find Joe inside with Dottie. He comes out of her room and asks increasingly pointed questions of Sharla, which ultimately leads her to admit that she knew the policy was really $100,000 (accidental death is double). Joe shows them a check of that amount payable to Rex, as well as incriminating photos which prove Sharla was having an affair with Rex. Angered, Ansel declines to protect Sharla when Joe punches her and forces her to simulate oral sex on a fried chicken drumstick.
Joe knows Chris is coming to take Dottie away and he threatens to kill Ansel and Sharla if they don't stop him. After Chris is seated for dinner, Joe announces that he and Dottie will be married. Chris refuses to let them, ordering Dottie to leave with him; Joe tells her to stay where she is. For a moment Dottie sits there, then she gets up and turns and, while the men yell out at her, Chris threatens Joe with a gun and the two struggle. Ansel and Sharla jump in to assist Joe as he brutally beats Chris, not wanting to be killed by Joe if Chris flees with Dottie. In all the confusion, Dottie recovers the gun and, in a rage, she fires several shots, killing Chris and seriously wounding Ansel. Dottie turns the gun on Joe, telling him that she is pregnant. Joe appears overjoyed as he inches closer to Dottie. The film ends just as Dottie moves her finger back on the trigger.Matthew McConaughey as "Killer" Joe Cooper
Emile Hirsch as Chris Smith
Juno Temple as Dottie Smith
Gina Gershon as Sharla Smith
Thomas Haden Church as Ansel Smith
Marc Macaulay as Digger Soames
Julia Adams (uncredited) as Adele
Sean O'Hara (uncredited) as Rex
In the United States, the film received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA for "graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality." After an unsuccessful appeal, LD Entertainment announced plans to release the film uncut with the NC-17 on July 27, 2012.
On October 23, 2012, the NC-17 rating was surrendered, and thus the film was released on DVD and Blu-ray with the NC-17 version released as the unrated director's cut in the United States. An edited R-rated version was also released on DVD.
Killer Joe premiered at the 68th Venice International Film Festival before making its North American debut at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, where US distribution rights were acquired by LD Entertainment. LD Entertainment, Liddell's new theatrical distribution company headed by David Dinerstein, scheduled its release for July 2012.
The film made its Quebec premiere at the Fantasia Festival, an annual international genre film festival held in Montreal, Quebec, on July 31, 2012.
The film's UK premiere was at the Opening Gala of the Edinburgh International Film Festival on June 20, 2012, where it was introduced by Friedkin and Gershon, who later attended the after-party at the National Museum of Scotland. The film received a theatrical release in the United Kingdom on June 29. It opened in three theaters almost a month later (July 27) in the United States.
The film was not a box office success, only grossing $1,987,762 in the domestic market and $2,645,906 internationally for a worldwide total of $4,633,668. The film was only released in 75 theaters nationwide and closed on October 14, nine days prior to the rating being surrendered. The film had an estimated $10 million budget.
Killer Joe received positive reviews from critics and has a rating of 78% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 159 reviews with an average rating of 6.8 out of 10. The consensus states: "Violent, darkly comic, and full of strong performances, Killer Joe proves William Friedkin hasn't lost his touch, even if the plot may be too lurid for some." The film also has a score of 62 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 38 reviews.
According to Justin Chang of Variety, "Killer Joe was Letts' first play, written more than a decade before his smash hit August: Osage County, and the text's sneer of condescension toward its panoply of trailer-trash caricatures has not entirely abated here," yet "the film doesn't belabor even its cheaper punchlines, and the fleet, kinetic visual style devised by d.p. Caleb Deschanel and editor Darrin Navarro emphasizes narrative momentum over cruel comedy. To be sure, Friedkin is clearly amused and appalled by his slovenly, foul-mouthed characters, with their off-the-charts levels of dysfunction and incompetence. But he directs them vigorously enough, pushing them past the realm of caricature to individuate themselves onscreen."
The Daily Telegraph said Church, Gershon, and Hirsch portray a "uniformly gormless family unit" in a film whose "positively Jacobean climax [earns] its 18 certificate and then some."
McConaughey received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Male Lead. The Women Film Critics Circle, however, nominated the film for its display of the worst female and male images.Winner Best Independent Film Saturn Awards
Winner Best Actor Saturn Awards (Matthew McConaughey)
Nominated Best Director Saturn Awards (William Friedkin)
Nominated Best Supporting Actress Saturn Awards (Gina Gershon)
Nominated Best Writing Saturn Awards (Tracey Letts)
Winner Special Honorary Award Austin Film Critics Association (Matthew McConaughey)
Nominated Grand Prix Belgian Film Critics Association
Winner Actor of the Year, Central Ohio Film Critics Association (Matthew McConaughey)
Winner Best Overlooked Film, Central Ohio Film Critics Association
Nominated Best Actor Independent Spirit Awards (Matthew McConaughey)
Nominated Best Supporting Actor San Diego Film Critics Society (Matthew McConaughey)
Winner Best Supporting Actress Toronto Film Critics Association (Gina Gershon)
Winner Golden Mouse Venice International Film Festival (William Friedkin)
Nominated Golden Lion Venice International Film Festival (William Friedkin)
Killer Joe was released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc December 21, 2012. The DVD features Southern Fried Hospitality: From Stage to Screen featurette, South by Southwest Q&A with the cast and intro by Friedkin, and the red-band theatrical trailer. The Blu-ray Disc includes all DVD features including the theatrically-released cut under the name the "Unrated Director's Cut" and an audio commentary by Friedkin.