Killer Joe (2011) ★★
Dir: William Friedkin, USA, 102 mins
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Templeton, Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church
As part of the New Hollywood set that blew apart the studio system William Friedkin first rose to prominence with cop thriller The French Connection (1971). Detective ‘Popeye’ Doyle’s (Gene Hackman) obsessive pursuit in closing down a drug smuggling ring transporting heroin from France, was a game changer for the genre. Raw and gritty, enhanced by loose, free flowing camerawork, with an antihero protagonist, it’s after effects are still felt, though never matched, in the vast sway of procedurals we see today. After winning a best director Oscar follow up The Exorcist (1973) cemented his reputation. Although my agnostic beliefs never enable me to fully engage with the film, the conflict played out is devastating and an assault on the senses.
After the financial and critical debacle Sorcerer (1977), a remake of Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), Friedkin entered a “Cimino esque” state, directing every few years but never hitting previous form. A rare high with To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) soon led to mediocrity although I would like to highlight underrated basketball drama Blue Chips (1994), a spiritual companion piece to sublime documentary Hoop Dreams (1994). Bug (2006), a chamber piece taken to dizzying, paranoid extremes, showed that there was life in the old dog yet.
Bug was written by playwright Tracy Letts and Friedkin has turned to him again for his latest Killer Joe. Set in a small, trashy Texan town we are first introduced to Chris (Emile Hirsch), a schmuck in severe debt to loan sharks who devises a plan with father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) to kill his mother, now Ansel’s ex partner, for life insurance money. To, literally, execute this plan they contact Detective Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who specialises in hitman work as a sideline. Issues become complicated when Cooper demands Chris’s sister, the Lolita esque Dottie (Juno Templeton), as a down payment.
Friedkin takes this staple noir plot and transplants it into a grimy trailer trash locale. He revels in the sweat and grime, spit and sawdust bars and strip joints bathed in midnight blue. The easy going, tumbleweed town of The Last Picture Show (1971) this is not. Despite the noir element you could barely call this a thriller. The plot, perhaps due to its stage play origins, unwinds at a leisurely pace and the twists and turns will be familiar to anyone use to this genre. Any sense of tension is cut short by the limited intelligence of the characters. The supporting cast appear to have great fun here playing hick stereotypes to the hilt, particularly Haden Church as the monotone, luggish Anson and Gina Gershon as his brash, tacky wife Sharla. In contrast Juno Templeton’s nuanced performance adds an unexpected layer to Dottie.
Of course it is never a case of getting from A to B, more how you get there. Tarantino would be the touchstone for films of this ilk but his films have great dialogue, characterisation and a fresh spin in terms of plot (or at least the editing of plot), shot through with a rich black comedic vein. Killer Joe has the latter, something it takes to absurd levels in the guise of McConaughey’s Cooper.
McConaughey is, frankly, terrifying in this film. Yes, you did read that correctly, that nice bloke from the romantic comedies, terrifying. In a clever piece of casting Friedkin has taken his Southern gent persona and skewered it beyond recognition. For most of the film he is still, polite but with deeply sinister undertones, always on the edge of losing it, a time bomb waiting to go off. This eventually unveils itself as outright sadism to back up his twisted moral code, best typified in one scene that will have you seriously questioning your next purchase of the colonel’s finest.
Maybe Friedkin intended for Cooper to be some perverse moral crusader against a right wing, red neck America riddled with diminishing ethics, an extreme leftie in joke possibly. A family dinner choreographed by Joe, which is more akin to a scene near the end of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), would best represent this argument. This is probably a stretch but if it is the case it smacks of shooting down easy targets and if not it veers into territory that is nasty and misogynistic, shock tactics for little point or reward. Killer Joe is notable for McConaughey’s performance but there is little here that you will have not seen before. Well, apart from the one scene at the end. But that is by no means a recommendation.