William Friedkin has never shied from the darker, grittier side of humanity. Be it the obvious good vs. evil of The Exorcist, the dogged cop pushing the boundaries of The French Connection or the ethically corrupt lawmen of To Live And Die In LA, Friedkin’s characters and worlds are rife with moral ambiguity. Here is a director whose characters, more often than not, tread, stamp and defecate all over each other to get what they want. With Killer Joe he’s taken it to new levels of sinister, sneering and deplorable personalities with which to tease, test and offend your moral consciousness, albeit with a wonderfully bitter-dark sense of humour.
Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) owes money to a local drug kingpin. Visiting his family trailer one night, he proposes the idea of killing his mother to his dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and Ansel’s foul-mouthed wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) having recently been informed that dear old mum has a life insurance policy that will pay out a cool $50,000 to his younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) upon her death. But neither Chris nor Ansel have the stomach to kill mummy themselves so go to Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a local detective and hitman for hire, to perform the deed. Joe works on a strict payment up front basis and Chris doesn’t have the $25,000 until he gets the insurance money. Joe, however, has another idea, he’ll take the job and wait for payment on the condition he is allowed a retainer for the job; namely little sister Dottie. To Dottie’s shock Chris and Ansel agree and what starts as a simple business arrangement rapidly spirals into a vicious game of cat and mouse.
From its rain drenched opening of a loud barking dog, Killer Joe does nothing by halves. It is a brash, often brutal little piece of cinema, the kind of film that will delight and repulse in equal measure. Like Friedkin’s Bug before it, the film is claustrophobic, close in ways that feel positively in your face. Given Killer Joe is based on Tracy Letts’ play it would be easy to call in theatrical, that much of the film is essentially character interaction would make that almost true, but Friedkin shoots in such a way as to bring us into the situation. It’s not that the screen drips with the sweat and grime of the film but rather we are immersed in it, and not in ways you’d always want.
The characters on display here are almost universally repugnant, deplorable examples of humanity. The kind of people you all too frequently encounter and always wish you could erase from your memory. Only Dottie, and to a lesser extent Ansel, have any likability and this comes more from their naïve outlook on life than their winning personalities. Chris and Sharla, when not spitting daggers at each other, are selfish, money orientated leeches, only out to profit for themselves no matter what the cost to others.
And then there’s Killer Joe; an ice-cold killer who teems with reserved menace. Friedkin presents Joe as a minion of Satan, a demon with a badge who you just know is waiting to explode in a fountain of rage and hell fire. There is clearly a noirish influence at work here. A similar form of neo-noir to Friedkin’s To Live And Die In LA chucked in a deep fat-fryer and then left to drip with the dregs of evil. On some levels it’s cartoonish, often over the top and yet you suspect, or fear, such events and characters almost certainly exist, making it all the more grueling to watch.
Emile Hirsch, at one point tipped for great things with Into The Wild, is on solid if slightly forced form. He certainly injects enough hatred into Chris but you wonder if he’s trying a little too hard to be nasty as opposed to letting the character’s actions speak more to his discredit. Thomas Hayden Church gives a wonderfully slack-jawed performance as Ansel, so thick between the ears is he you half expect him to start dragging his knuckles along the floor. Gina Gershon is on career best form as Sharla. Typically trailer-trashed and caked in make-up she’s one of those characters you love to hate. Juno Temple is appropriately wide-eyed and blissfully ignorant. Her waif like presence a creepy lure to Joe. But the film belongs to Matthew McConaughey. Gone, hopefully, are the days of phoning in tatty romantic comedies with Kate Hudson and Sarah Jessica Parker, this year has seen McConaughey forgo the compulsory ab-flashing and instead focus on character. As Joe is he brilliant; channeling his Texan twang via his break out role in The Return Of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you never doubt that Joe is true to his word. His piercing blue gaze combined with darker hair than we’re used to seeing gives him a distinctly evil presence. At one moment he looks almost straight into camera and it’s enough to freeze the blood.
Beneath all the hatred and shouting, Killer Joe is similar to this year’s Killing Them Softly. Joe, like Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan, is performing a service and in return should be properly paid. As Joe declares; “It’s not personal, it’s business”. And like all business it’s back-stabbing and brutal, perhaps too much for some to stomach. Suffice to say Killer Joe will either delight you or shock you into submission. One thing’s for sure, you’ll never look at a piece of fried chicken in the same way again.