It’s been forty years since filmmaker William Friedkin tested the boundaries of what’s acceptable in modern cinema with his 1973 horror opus The Exorcist. Friedkin’s Killer Joe (finished in 2011 but released last year) finds the director back in this territory, mounting a controversial NC-17-rated thriller which shows that the director still has a talent for the lurid. Killer Joe was written by Tracy Letts, who adapted his own stage play for the screen and who worked with Friedkin on 2006’s polarising Bug. Sleazy and engaging, this is more or less a contemporary film noir in the vein of Double Indemnity, yet it’s also something of a black comedy, though Friedkin’s own descriptor “black hole comedy” is perhaps more apt. Full of vile moments and repulsive characters, the film is a punishing viewing experience from time to time, but it benefits from exemplary technical credits and sublime acting, with Matthew McConaughey front and centre delivering his best performance in years.
Set in the American South, troubled lowlife Chris (Emile Hirsch) owes several thousand dollars to the local loan shark. He turns to his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) for help, taking up residence in his trailer with Ansel’s second wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) and daughter Dottie (Juno Temple). Chris’ mother has a hefty life insurance policy which would be paid to Dottie in the event of her death, hence Chris and Ansel decide to enlist the services of Joe Cooper (McConaughey), a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a contract killer. Although Joe demands the money upfront, he agrees to the job if he’s given Dottie as a retainer. While Chris is hugely reluctant, Joe and Dottie commence a sexual relationship. However, not everything is as it seems, and Chris’ idiocy begins getting in the way, leading to friction between Joe and his employers.
Bug was likewise based on one of Letts’ stage plays, but Friedkin and Letts retained the single setting for that tale of body horror and paranoia. For Killer Joe, however, the collaborators have opened up the play a fair amount, spanning various locations rather than remaining within Ansel’s trailer. It does not feel falsely or arbitrarily expanded, though, which is a huge credit to the creative team behind the picture. Fortunately, Letts’ script is strong for the most part, full of sharp dialogue and well-realised characters. The film eventually accepts its stage play origins with an extended final scene running over twenty-five minutes that’s confined to Ansel’s trailer. It’s a small-scale finale, but the scene is legendary, cranking tension levels up to eleven and serving up shocks at an alarming rate. The only flaws with Killer Joe are inherent in the script, which incorporates some of the play’s weaker moments. One gets the sense that Friedkin and Letts revel in the shocking nature of this stuff too much, leading to an unorthodox use of a chicken leg that’s more uncomfortable and degrading than effective. Yes, it’s meant to be degrading but it seems like overkill.
Despite being his first big-screen outing in years, Friedkin remains an exceptional filmmaker here, his competency with staging and pacing shining through in every frame. What’s surprising about the film is that, although it’s often vile and repulsive, it’s compulsively watchable and enthralling, which is a credit to Friedkin’s skills as a cinematic craftsman. It’s not that he waters down the content to make it more accessible; it’s just hard to look away due to the tension, plot twists and dialogue. Killer Joe is a stylish picture to boot, with gorgeous cinematography by Caleb Deschanel perfectly capturing this Southern Noir tale. The MPAA slapped the film with an NC-17 rating, a move that Friedkin expected and embraced, though the distributors also cut together an R-rated edit. Beware, Killer Joe contains full-frontal nudity, shocking violence, disturbing themes, and plenty of bad words… It’s genuinely fantastic to see Friedkin pushing buttons again.
Friedkin is a director who knows how to coax the best out of his actors, hence Killer Joe is full of top-flight performances, with all the actors at the top of their game. McConaughey too often plays pretty-boy romantic leads, which he’s now more or less reviled for. It’s refreshing, then, to see the actor sinking his teeth into the ferociously creepy yet funny titular character. Demonstrating acting talent we’ve forgotten he has, McConaughey is mesmerising here, his calm demeanour and terrific grooming a delightful contrast to the dirty trailer trash he deals with. Drenched in Texas swagger, Joe is a man you would not want to cross, yet he’s strangely charismatic and respectful. It’s a bravura turn for McConaughey that’s brilliantly controlled and creepy. Hirsch is fairly good here, too, but it’s Juno Temple who stands out as Dottie. She’s such a bizarre and complex character; she’s either simple-minded or extremely intelligent. Church also fares well here, while Gershon is astonishingly good as Ansel’s new bride.
Even though Friedkin is getting older, he is still drawn to edgy, controversial material, and Killer Joe is a fascinating effort by the veteran filmmaker. It’s not a universally appealing motion picture, however; it’s nihilistic, crude, intense, shocking and violent, but it’s also darkly funny and competently produced. As long as you can stomach this type of material, Killer Joe is well worth checking out.