Directed by William Friedkin
Master filmmaker William Friedkin will always have carte blanche around these parts for his cinematic adaptation of The Exorcist which still manages to be one of the best and most terrifying films of all time even after almost forty years since its release.
As a storyteller, Friedkin has always strayed from the norm and given audiences some of the most thought-provoking and powerful films of all times including The French Connection, Sorcerer, To Live and Die in LA and Cruising as well as a few other notable projects including Rules of Engagement, Bug and the erotic thriller Jade (penned by the wacky Joe Eszterhas). And one would be quick to think that after 47 years of filmmaking the director would be slowing down but with his latest, Killer Joe, Friedkin shows he’s not ready to slow down any time soon.
In fact, Friedkin delivers some of his best work in decades here which will have you seeing both Matthew McConaughey and fried chicken in a whole new light once the credits begin rolling on Killer Joe.
At the start of the movie we meet a down on his luck 20-something schlub named Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) who finds himself in debt to a local crime boss who’s ready to break his kneecaps if Chris can’t score some cash quick. Desperate to repay his debt (and preserve said kneecaps), Chris presents a dastardly yet simple scheme to his dimwitted mechanic father Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church), Ansel’s second wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) and his 12-year-old sister Dottie (Juno Temple), a naïve and sheltered girl who, as it turns out, will inherit $50,000 if her mother (and Ansel’s first wife) should happen to kick the bucket.
Chris suggests that they hire Joe Cooper (McConaughey)- a local lawkeeper who also happens to moonlight as a deadly hitman named Killer Joe in his spare time- to take out the mother, leaving them to split Dottie’s inheritance and saving Chris’ debt woes once and for all. The snag in Chris’ perfect plan is that their proverbial trailer trash family lacks the money to hire Killer Joe for the hit. The chillingly cool Joe isn’t too thrilled that his potential employers lack the necessary funds for the job but he graciously offers up an idea that would keep the killer satisfied while awaiting payment- he wants sexual favors from Dottie, a virgin while he awaits payment.
At first, Dottie’s family debates back and forth about putting the virginal youngster on retainer with Killer Joe (much in a way people debate whether or not to put this year’s Christmas presents on lay-a-way at Wal-Mart; an off-kilter approach that certainly elevates Friedkin’s darkly comedic stylings peppered throughout the flick), but the trio all succumb to the allure of the insurance payout that is awaiting them and soon, Killer Joe makes quick work of Chris and Dottie’s mom- almost as quick as he seduces the virgin right out of the young girl, and Dottie shows she’s definitely not immune to Joe’s charming ways (it’s McConaughey- he perspires pure charisma), quickly falling for the dangerous killer, thusly complicating things within her family dynamic which elevates tensions all around in some pretty unimaginable ways (again: fried chicken).
As a whole, Killer Joe is a frantic, unsettling and cynical portrait of lower-income family dynamics that explores the best and worst aspects of the familial unit and just how broken family ties can become in today’s society. In some ways, the flick also explores the recent down-turn in the economy and how poverty can push people to do terrible things to the people they love the most.
But most distinctly, Killer Joe manages to be a twisted and weird little love story which isn’t something you’d expect packaged inside a gritty crime thriller by Friedkin at all; there is just something horribly mesmerizing about watching Joe and Dottie’s completely irrational yet completely rational relationship unfold throughout the film (much like Mickey and Mallory in Natural Born Killers) and as you watch the youngster fall for the older killer, you know it’s wrong but you find yourself kind of rooting for the lovers to make it through the messy situation that unfolds as the inheritance doesn’t end up working out like Chris first thought it would.
Both McConaughey and Temple are simply astonishing in Killer Joe and deserve any sort of praise or accolade that comes their way for their performances in the movie. Truthfully, McConaughey is an actor that this writer has been endlessly defending for years now; sure, the bongo-loving actor has shown up in some turkeys (The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Sahara, Failure to Launch, Fool’s Gold and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) over the years but people always seem to forget McConaughey’s stellar turns in a multitude of great flicks too like Dazed and Confused, Frailty, A Time to Kill, Reign of Fire (which I’ll defend to the bitter end), We Are Marshall, Tropic Thunder (another flick I’ll defend until I’m blue in the face), and most recently The Lincoln Lawyer. McConaughey’s latest turn in Killer Joe is by far the actor’s most impressive work to date and certainly proves he still likes to keep things interesting in his career.
Gershon is given one of the more thankless characters in Killer Joe with the scheming and underhanded Sharla but the underappreciated actress delivers a brilliantly daring and layered performance, making Sharla into something more multidimensional than the usual trampy and unsatisfied trailer park housewife. Haden Church gets back to his indie roots here and makes Ansel a likable unassuming schmuck who just can’t be bothered with making decisions, going along with whomever seems to be a bit smarter than him in that given situation.
Killer Joe‘s script by Tracy Letts (who also penned the play as well as Friedkin’s last thriller Bug) is exceptionally good once it finds its footing; the movie stumbles a bit right out of the gate, making the first thirty-five minutes or so the weakest part of the movie with some of the scenes lingering on just a little too long. But once Joe is introduced into the mix and the story picks up steam, everything really clicks in Killer Joe with Friedkin’s unflinching directional style complimenting Letts’ unsettling but sometimes sweet (in a twisted way) story beautifully.
While it may be a bit too heavy-handed and careless in some places to ever be considered one of Friedkin’s greatest masterpieces, Killer Joe is definitely the best we’ve seen from the iconic director in some time; it’s a bold, weirdly charming and violent look at the modern family unit that makes for one of the most thought-provoking cinematic endeavors of this year that also manages to prove that it is possible to still make compelling and interesting films after almost five decades in the business.
4out of 5