William Friedkin may not have 100% success rate but few will deny that when he’s good he’s VERY good. My favourite thing about Friedkin is how resolutely he continues to make films that never seem aimed at any target demographic other than actual, sensible adults. Okay, he also made Jade but we can skim over that blip. As a horror fan, I will forever be indebted to Friedkin for his cinematic adaptation of The Exorcist. As a cinema fan, I will forever be indebted to the man for The French Connection. But let’s not forget To Live And Die In L.A. Or Sorcerer. Even Bug, whether you liked it or not, was a very interesting and thought-provoking film. So where exactly does Killer Joe fit into his filmography? Strangely enough, especially considering some of the violence and sexual nature of the content, this is relatively light fare from Friedkin, a neo-noir that’s slightly above average elevated by a few central performances that raise the whole thing to be good-to-near great.
It’s late at night when Chris (Emile Hirsch) raps on the trailer door belonging to his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church). His father now lives with his new wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon), and still keeps his daughter Dottie (Juno Temple) under his meagre roof. Chris has had yet another troublesome time with his mother and he’s also in some financial dire straits but he has a plan. In the early scenes of the movie he explains that plan to his father – to hire “Killer” Joe (Matthew McConaughey) to kill his mother and then cash in the insurance policy to pay the man and split the rest between them. Unfortunately, Joe doesn’t do any job without payment up front. Usually. Once he meets Dottie he is quite smitten and agrees to take the job on the condition that he gets to “keep” Dottie as a retainer. This doesn’t seem like a bad deal to Chris, who is confident that his plan will work out well, unlike his past schemes.
While there are moments of harsh violence, a few scenes of strange eroticism and some tension that you could cut with a knife, Killer Joe is actually a twisted and darkly comic look at the family and all that entails, good and bad. It’s a look at dinner table conversations about how to move forward, a look at how emotions can easily overwhelm any small residence and a look at just how much people can hurt the ones they love. On the surface, it’s all about Joe and the job to be done but there’s plenty of other stuff going on in every single scene.
The direction from Friedkin is spot on, adding a few extra images of interest here and there but generally content to simply compliment the writing and performances with just the right shot choice and unflinching attitude to everything that unfolds (one or two scenes run on a little too long, deliberately so, making you squirm in your seat with discomfort).
The script by Tracy Letts, based on his play (he also wrote Bug), is very good once it finds its feet. The first half hour or so is the weakest part of the movie but, as you’d expect, everything gets better whenever Joe is onscreen and the second half of the film has one or two scenes that are strange and stylish and great.
Everything is lifted by the cast and I can’t end this review without heaping praise upon them. Gina Gershon may have one of the lesser characters in the movie but she gives a great, daring, performance. Juno Temple gets to make more of an impact as Dottie, simply due to the effect that she has on those around her, but she also gives a fantastic performance. Emile Hirsch is a young actor I like seeing in films but I think he was a bit of a weak link here. Was he bad? No, no he wasn’t, but I could easily imagine a number of other actors doing something better with the role. Thomas Haden Church benefits from being given a number of great one-liners and delivers them superbly, his character is a bit of a schmuck and the actor has a fun time playing him. Then we have Matthew McConaughey and I’ve saved the best for last. I have always liked McConaughey but, let’s be frank here, he seemed to be intent on jeopardising his own career with bad choice after bad choice over the past 5-10 years. Few people nowadays remember just how much they liked him in A Time To Kill but he managed to win a lot of viewers over again with his great turn in The Lincoln Lawyer and this performance shows just how mesmerising and truly great he can be. In fact, it’s another one that easily sits up there as a contender for the best of his career. Joe has morals, manners and a code of conduct – they may all be warped but he has them – and while his character holds the attention of those around him it’s McConaughey who holds the attention of the audience. Whenever he’s offscreen you want to see him back, carefully considering his words and releasing them in concise and straightforward statements. He’s a killer, he basically “buys” a first date with Dottie and he’s capable of some nasty violence without even batting an eyelid. Yet, in some ways, he’s the ideal head of the family.
It may be a bit too heavy-handed here and there to be a modern classic, and it’s also a bit careless and illogical in places, but Killer Joe is definitely another fine slice of adult entertainment from a man who has already given us enough modern classics to keep us happy. And Jade.
Killer Joe premiered at the EIFF 2012 on 20 June at Festival Theatre.
Director: William Friedkin
Writer: Tracy Letts
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church
Runtime: 103 mins