Veteran helmer William Friedkin’s latest is less a thriller and more a heightened, melodramatic black comedy. Admittedly that’s a tougher sell – but given the film’s heady swirl of matricide, misogyny and incest this was never going to be an easy movie to market widely. Hopefully the draw of Matthew McConaughey will bring in plenty of unsuspecting viewers (as well as those already primed) for what is one of the year’s most entertaining pictures. Mining drama and jet-black chuckles more from the wayward, unpredictable dynamic of its well-chosen cast of crazies rather than its familiar narrative, Killer Joe proves you can’t keep a good (disreputable) man down – with the now 76 year-old director showing he can still deliver a sucker punch to match the glory days of his Hollywood prime.
Chris (Emile Hirsh) is a white-trash punk and small-time dope dealer who owes a whole lot of money to some very bad men. He’s running out of time and options, so cooks up a life insurance scam to kill his estranged mother and clear the debt, embroiling his own father (Sideways’ Thomas Haden Church) and flaky stepmother (sexy upside-down-mouth lady Gina Gershon) in the plan. McConaughey’s eponymous sheriff is the contract man required – unfortunately for Chris he’s not the kind of man who will work on an IOU basis. A retainer is necessary. Step forward the only collateral Joe will accept – Hirsch’s younger sister Dottie (doll-like ingénue Juno Temple). When Dottie and Joe’s relationship becomes more than a contractual arrangement, Hirsch sees red. Meanwhile the perfect crime itself is already unravelling, big time.
Friedkin’s movie is based – like his last, the borderline-deranged Bug (2006) – on a stage play by celebrated US writer Tracy Letts. Friedkin has clearly found a kindred spirit and their work here feels less stagey than that previous collaboration. True much of the film takes place within the grotty confines of a mobile home, but together they open up the trailer trash talk with external scenes that integrate well and prevent the film from becoming too theatrical.
Beginning as it means to go on – blood-soaked, amoral and gleefully perverse – this is a film of gruesome, lurid moments. Gina Gershon’s entrance will not be quickly forgotten and neither will a rancid, degrading and already infamous sequence involving her, McConaughey and piece of fried chicken. The recent film this most closely resembles (at least superficially) is Michael Winterbottom’s hugely controversial Jim Thompson adaptation The Killer Inside Me (2010). Winterbottom made a bold gamble with that picture, playing it deadly straight and turning in a genuinely repellent work. Friedkin and Letts treat this similar material with equal amounts (dis)respect and loopy humour, so even the most extreme moments of brutality carry an absurdist charge.
Friedkin also reveals an unexpected flair for visual hilarity – small moments between Gershon and Haden Church are funnier than the whole of his 1983 comedy misfire The Deal of the Century. That’s not to say the film isn’t to be approached with caution but there’s a distance applied which makes the film’s latent misanthropy somehow slightly more palatable.
Ultimately though, this is a film whose chief pleasures are two very different performers – the perennially underrated (and, to be fair, often underachieving) McConaughey and punky Brit superstar-in-the-making Temple, whose Dottie is the film’s real secret weapon. This unlikely pairing is a joy to watch and Temple provides some much-need warmth and humanity in a role that could’ve backfired spectacularly with the wrong casting.
Like the deep-fried chicken which provides such an emblematic motif, Killer Joe is a guilty, salty treat, with a less than pleasant aftertaste. But you might find you want to go back for more again, despite yourself.