William Friedkin returns with a vengeance in this southern-fried tale of hillbilly murder, rampage and good old-fashioned insanity. Guaranteed to make you a vegetarian.
It’s been six years since horror maestro William Friedkin graced us with a big screen outing, an adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Bug (2006). Friedkin arguably defined more than one genre with The Exorcist (1973) and The French Connection (1971), but the last half decade has only seen him surface on a few episodes of the less-than-groundbreaking CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Going further back into Letts’ bibliography, the 76-year-old filmmaker crafts a film that would be considered audacious at any stage of a director’s career.
Drug dealer Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is in deep with some local lowlifes, and hatches a plan with his idiotic father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) to kill his promiscuous mother for the insurance money. Hoping to split the payout with the sinister local cop ‘Killer’ Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), so named for his side-business as a hitman, Joe instead elects to take a retainer: Chris’ naïve and beautiful sister, Dottie (Juno Temple).
Friedkin’s Killer Joe wastes no time in going for full raw exposure, especially with Gina Gershon showing us her best entrance since Showgirls. Nasty and unapologetically sleazy, the rural Texas trailer-park setting is the hottest, wettest and stickiest kind of redneckery this side of the Bible Belt. The characters are wretched reprobates, birthed from an unholy union of Natural Born Killers and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and this seems to be just fine as far as the actors are concerned. The film shares a number of the uneasy excesses that drove Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me past the point of reason, especially as it reaches its bloody denouement, with one of the most memorable uses of fried chicken in a motion picture. However, Friedkin’s overtly satirical approach tempers the madness, filtering it through the uncaged and unhinged Matthew McConaughey.
It is a rare thing to see a leading man let loose the way that rom-com veteran McConaughey does in Killer Joe. “His eyes hurt,” remarks Dottie on several occasions, and while his piercing gaze does betray the insanity that lurks beneath, he is impossible to look away from. Yet he isn’t alone in his wonderful performance, with a cast that’s universally bold and beautiful to watch. Rising star Temple, soon to be seen in The Dark Knight Rises, is magical as the dippy Dottie, who borders on ethereal and virginal, and occasionally crosses over into wrong side of sanity. Gershon is in her element as Ansel’s sometimes wife, but it is Haden Church who tends to steal even the most grotesque moments on screen.
Like Francis Ford Coppola, who has been experimenting with Tetro and Twixt over the last few years, Friedkin appears to have found his inner film-student in the autumn of his career. Inspired by the excesses of Letts’ script, adapting his own screenplay, Killer Joe might be violent and vile, but it is also sharp, engaging and outright hilarious at all times. It may never compare to Friedkin’s 1970s masterpieces, his style and flair feels as fresh as it did four decades ago.
Killer Joe played at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2012. It is released in US cinemas on 27 July 2012 from LD Distribution. It will be released in Australia by Roadshow Films.