By Linc Leifeste | July 26, 2012
Director: William Friedkin
Writer: Tracy Letts (screenplay, play)
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Marc Macaulay
Killer Joe is a film that I’d been eagerly anticipating ever since being unable to attend its sole 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival screening, a violent Southern Gothic trailer-trash piece of noir directed by the legendary William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) featuring a starring turn by the recently reinvigorated (if not reinvented) Matthew McConaughey along with a solid supporting cast including Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church. While anticipation always provides an opportunity for disappointment, this unexpectedly depraved and darkly comedic film exceeded my expectations. Viewing this brilliantly executed film, drenched as it is in sex and violence, was akin to walking a tightrope, a thrilling experience but at several points I nearly fell off from averting my gaze and even considered jumping in order to avoid seeing any more blood spew across the screen.
Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is in hot water. He owes $6,000 to Texas drug dealer Digger Soames (Marc Macaulay) and if he doesn’t come up with at least one of those six G’s soon, his bones and natural good looks will be in serious jeopardy. He makes a desperate nighttime visit to his father Ansel’s (Thomas Haden Church) trailer home, ostensibly hoping that he’ll be good for a loan. Soon he’s roped his father into a scheme of hiring Dallas hit man (when not working his day job as a police officer) Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to murder his mother (Ansel’s ex-wife), whose $50,000 life insurance policy lists his sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as the beneficiary.
Enter Killer Joe, dressed in black and meaning business, the perfect combination of Dazed and Confused‘s Wooderson and Lone Star‘s Buddy Deeds. In other words, after years of throw-away romantic comedies McConaughey has returned to form and is finally fulfilling the potential of those early roles. Always speaking softly, Killer Joe manages to come across as slightly stoned, in complete self-control, and very lethal, his interactions with simpletons Chris and Ansel a display in contrasts. What could go wrong? Well, after Dottie overhears their hushed plans and Ansel cuts his current wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) in on the deal, a lot. And, of course, they soon enough do.
Killer Joe has a very strict policy of cash up front but makes a one time exemption this time around, offering to take the virginal but sensual teenaged Dottie as collateral. Ansel agrees to the plan but Chris is more reluctant, not eager to hand his beloved sister off to a psychopath. As things begin to unravel and the backwards Smith clan struggles to survive, Killer Joe coolly manipulates the family members, playing one against another. Populated mostly by trashy Texas characters that feel somewhat stereotypical, it says something about Friedkin and writer Tracy Letts that the film never comes across as contemptuous of these deep-fried dimwits despite the deservedly cruel fates they are dealt. If there’s a moral to be found in this depraved joint, and you have to dig deep to find one, it might be along the lines of a warning that even the most self-disciplined of people are susceptible to temptation and the most adept students of human nature will sometimes run across a subject that is beyond their understanding or control.
Masterfully acted and adroitly paced, Friedkin and crew do a brilliant job of keeping the audience on the edge of their seats while breaking up the tension with moments of (guilty) laughter. That said, this is not a film I can recommend without reservation. From the clever and hilarious opening introduction of Sharla’s nether regions to the initial sexual interaction between Joe and Dottie to a late scene featuring the forced fellatio of a fried chicken leg that will make even the most cynical of theater-goers squirm, nudity and sex are unapologetically front and center. Likewise, the graphically presented beatings that Chris takes during the film were enough to turn my stomach and give me pause. So for those chronically averse to graphic sexual content and intense violence, you might want to steer clear of Killer Joe.
But for the rest of us, props to Friedkin and McConaughey for bravely making an original and wildly entertaining adult film that doesn’t shy away from the darkest of material. I walked out of the theater feeling alternately exhilarated and defiled, in mind of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, longingly wondering what it might have looked like on the big screen had it been directed by Friedkin. Considering my love of all things McCarthy and most things Coen Brothers, that might be the biggest compliment I could pay this film.