Director: William Friedkin
Screenplay: Tracy Letts
Based on a Play by: Tracy Letts
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon
Producers: Nicolas Chartier, Scott Einbinder
Running Time: 102 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
William Friedkin is one of those directors whose name you associate with the greats – he made The Exorcist and The French Connection which is enough to justify this. However, when you look through his filmography, he never got anywhere near to the critical or commercial success of those iconic 70’s movies and in the 90’s and 00’s he drifted off into relative obscurity with a number of flops and forgettable titles under his belt. In 2012 though, at almost 80 years old, rather than calling it a day, the director unleashes Killer Joe, a greasy slap in the face to those that thought he had sold out and given up.
Killer Joe is a kind of Texan trailer-trash ‘neo-noir’. Chris (Emile Hirsch), a down and out drug dealer, owes money to a local kingpin, so talks his loser dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) into a scheme to get his mother (Ansel’s ex-wife) killed so that they can share the insurance money. To do this ‘cleanly’ they hire ‘Killer Joe’ (Matthew McConaughey), a police detective that moonlights as a hitman. However, Chris and Ansel don’t have the collateral to make the appropriate forward payment for Joe to do the deed, so they allow him to take Chris’ sister Dottie as a ‘retainer’. Joe and Dottie start to form a peculiar relationship though and as the deal predictably goes sour, Joe works to make sure he still gets what he wants.
This is a nasty, seedy little film. Opening in a thunder storm with the viscous family dog snarling at the camera, within a minute we see Gina Gershon’s bush on full display and within five we’re down at a strip joint. This is a film inhabited by trash-talking, alcoholic, drug-dealing, wife-beating low lives and has enough sexual abuse and violence to warrant its 18 certificate (something which isn’t often handed out these days). Away from some of its darkest moments it is, however, quite a lot of fun – in its loosest sense of course. It reminds me a lot of Oliver Stone’s U-Turn, which I’ve always thought was an underrated gem. Both films have a lot of energy, garish visuals (although Friedkin doesn’t suffer from as ADD like Stone) and an unpleasant edge to proceedings. Killer Joe’s plot doesn’t get as complicated as U-Turn’s and gets nastier towards the end, but it definitely gave off that vibe.
Although it reminded me of that film and it does borrow a number of elements from your standard crime thrillers and neo-noirs, Killer Joe is a fairly unique experience. It never quite goes in the directions you suspect, turning from a standard thriller into a sick love story and a disturbing take on the American family unit. The twisted finale in particular is quite a head turner and you’ll never look at a chicken drumstick in the same way again.
This originality is largely down to the fantastic script by Tracy Letts. As mentioned, the film doesn’t get as complicated as you might suspect from the set-up, it’s quite a simple affair, but the dialogue and some of the more unusual scenes bring out a sick sense of humour that makes for something special. It’s the sort of thing that could become quite quotable should it ever get more of a following (I don’t think it particularly set the box office on fire).
Making the dialogue truly shine through is a fantastic cast. The central family seem cartoony at first, but once you get into the tone of the film you realise they fit the bill perfectly, with the two leading ladies Gina Gershon and Juno Temple in particular making the most of their roles as Ansel’s abhorrent current wife and the only ‘good’ and ‘innocent’ character in the film, Dottie. Most impressive however is Matthew McConaughey. After a decade of slumming it in rom-coms he’s finally being put to good use here. He’s perfect as the charismatic, but terrifying Joe. He expertly delivers seemingly innocuous lines with undertones of menace and/or charm throughout the film. He’s the best reason to watch it and you kind of miss him when he’s not on screen. If the Academy had any balls or taste they’d give him a nod at next year’s Oscars, but that isn’t likely to happen (they might give him a supporting nomination for Magic Mike though).
It isn’t a flawless film. Sometimes it gets a bit too unpleasant and its dark humour won’t register for many. It feels a little rushed at times too, with the finale, although memorable, not necessarily feeling all that satisfying. For me though, this is a boldly lurid film that isn’t afraid of knocking the audience around a bit to offer up something snappy and seedily entertaining without sacrificing the core elements of a decent script and performances.
Killer Joe is out on November 5th in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray, released by Entertainment One. I watched the film through an online service so I can’t comment on the picture quality. As for features, you get a couple of pieces. Most worthwhile is a 19 collection of soundbytes from the lead cast and Friedkin himself. These short interviews are fairly interesting, especially when we hear from the director, but most of the time it’s a bit of a love-in. The other feature is 15 minutes of B-Roll behind the scenes footage. This isn’t of much value, it’s just a handful of random clips and I could barely sit through it it’s that dull.