Teaming up with writer Tracy Letts of Bug again, The Exorcist and The French Connection director William Friedkin decides to go down the depressingly claustrophobic route of his 2006 film, trapping us with his characters in a seemingly hopeless spiral of existence in Killer Joe. However, there is some depraved glee that this filmmaker takes in toying with his hapless cast, and his latest film is no exception nor for the faint-hearted.
When Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) finds himself in debt again, he decides to put a hit out on his evil mother for cashing in on her life insurance, with the help of Texan detective and assassin-for-hire ‘Killer’ Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). The trouble is his family don’t have the doe to pay the sinister Joe upfront who asks for retainer in Chris’s young and emotionally challenged sister Dottie (Juno Temple). With so many secrets threatening to unravel the plan, will anyone come out the winner?
Friedkin holds no punches in exploring the depravity of the human psyche when the chips are down and money is involved. Each of his characters is ‘ugly’ in their own unique way in their quest for individual rewards and survival in the story. The director has no qualms about suggesting this, even in Dottie’s more vulnerable case: are they a product of their environment (white trailer trash, effectively) or do they instigate their own chilling misfortune? He puts them under the microscope and lets them squirm with noirish comic value for our benefit/pleasure. However, some may find the experiences of Dottie in the story hard to process, considering she’s underage. There is also a deliberate, misogynistic undercurrent flowing freely too, like some trace of a 70s torture-porn movie.
However questionable the antics of the characters are – and one quite powerful and disturbing act will leave you thinking twice about purchasing your next bucket of fried chicken legs, undoubtedly the winner in this piece is McConaughey who will shake off his all-American romcom image for good after seeing him as Joe in this. He’s like a seductive Lucifer come to judge the sinful, giving one of his most memorable performances to date. In fact, he’s been missing a trick for years, it seems, suggesting the unhinged character brings out the best of his acting abilities. McConaughey even plays on his Texan smoothie charm that fans admire, but will leave them doubting as he delves into his darker side for drawing out all of Joe’s condescending and judgemental angles.
Friedkin also brilliantly sets the Gothic mood and tone in his new film, revisiting his Exorcist traits for full horror value, and making the trailer the dysfunctional family’s own private hell. It’s only when each character comes into the light in his daytime scenes that he then readdresses the dark comedy value of the whole sick situation, but never straying far from the imminent danger and brutality that follows each character around. In this sense, it’s quite an arresting piece of intense filmmaking as the laughs merely act as much-needed releases.
Killer Joe will leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth of some, but it’s arguably a controversial, if disjointed and engaging return to form for Friedkin after six-year absence on the big screen. There is also an alarming confidence portrayed in the delicate subject matter it explores, which is yet undecidedly genius or worryingly affecting. Even so, as Friedkin recently remarked that he knows of such real-life cop characters-cum-contract killers, to fight evil you need to know what it is yourself. In this sense, it’s the challenge in accepting this that will determine how effective Killer Joe is as a character and a film.