Directed by William Friedkin
Distributed by Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Six years ago, director William Friedkin and playwright Tracy Letts gave us Bug, a devastating horror film featuring two of the best performances of that year (given by the still underrated Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd, who’s capable of much more than her choices in roles will typically allow her). Now Friedkin has adapted yet another one of Letts’ works, giving us Killer Joe, a southern-fried, batshit insane crime flick that just cannot wait to fuck up your evening. And while Joe is not quite at Bug’s level, it still stands as one of the better, more challenging movies that 2012 had to offer.
Killer Joe finds Chris (Hirsch), a low-level drug dealer, in serious debt to some very bad people who are soon to come knocking at his door. Chris’ solution to his problems: persuade his father Ansel (Church) to help him secure the services of “Killer” Joe Cooper (McConaughey, incredible here), a Texas lawman who hires himself out as a hitman on the side, to murder Chris’ mother in order to collect the sizable insurance payout that will cover his debts and Joe’s fee. In lieu of not having his payment upfront, Joe decides to take Chris’ younger sister Dottie (Temple) as a “retainer”, leading to a bizarre romance, likely incestuous jealousy, and a revelation concerning Chris’ stepmother Sharla (Gershon), which sparks off one of the most bizarre climaxes I’ve ever seen in any film, before ending in ultra-violence, screaming, and a jarring cut to black.
And wow, where to begin. While I immediately fell in love with the previous Letts/Friedkin collaboration, this writer honestly didn’t know quite what to think of this film once the credits hit. It took a bit of consideration and a rewatch before I could fully wrap my mind around it and form a solid opinion. To be sure, it’s an extremely well-made film. Friedkin is at the top of his game, delivering a beautiful film (shot on digital by legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel) with across-the-board wonderful performances from the entire cast. Hirsch and Church do career best work, Gershon is stunningly good (why doesn’t she get higher quality roles like this more often?), and newcomer Temple is just great as the lovely innocent with a big secret.
But it’s McConaughey’s show, through and through. It’s very easy to forget that the man is a great actor when he chooses to be (which is seldom, sadly), and I’ll admit to being a bit disappointed at hearing of his casting in this film. I needn’t have worried. His take on Joe is marvelous, giving us a charming killer who happens to be a burning inferno underneath his ice-cool exterior. One can imagine many actors giving in to their inner ham with this role, which makes one all the more appreciative of McConaughey’s measured, subtle approach throughout (allowing his climactic moments to be all the more shocking). While it’s unlikely given the film’s confrontational nature, here’s hoping that McConaughey gets some much deserved love come awards season.
Praise much also go to writer Tracy Letts, whose early 90s stage play provides the basis for this film. Between Bug and Joe, Letts seems to have carved out a niche for portraying some incredibly seedy worlds, full of misfit characters presented (mostly) free of judgment. But whereas Bug played out like a true horror film (regardless of the nature of the film’s true “threat”), Killer Joe is far more of a redneck noir, populated with the type of desperate, dumb people that the genre demands. And with Joe, Letts has created a truly indelible anti-hero who wouldn’t have been out of place in a Jim Thompson novel (and likely would’ve eaten Lou Ford and Doc McCoy for breakfast). But as with Bug, Letts is able to find the horror in the banal, everyday world that we all live in. His monsters walk about in the daylight as often as the dark, making his works as frightening as any supernatural tale or slasher flick.
But it’s that cut-to-black ending that leaves one a bit cold. While it certainly makes sense that the film would end on a fever-pitched high note, its lack of resolution is a bit of a letdown. Undoubtedly this choice was deliberate, both as a stylistic choice and for its intended effect on the audience, but that hardly makes it a satisfying conclusion. In addition, the film’s middle section does sag a bit, tending to drag more than its intriguing first half and its electric final act. Having said that, I believe I’m likely in the minority on this, as most reviews tend to gush and everyone I’ve spoken to about the film seems to wholly adore it.
And understandably so. I cannot deny how refreshing it is to see a smart film with challenging subject matter, with such strong direction and fantastic performances. Movies like this should be the rule, not the exception. So while I have a couple of issues with it, I appreciate its existence all the same. Here’s hoping we get even more team-ups out of Letts and Friedkin in the near future.
The ‘gate has done right by Killer Joe, giving the film a beautiful transfer and an impressive audio track. Shot on video, the film’s clarity and colors are often striking, even if the otherwise sharp image is occasionally a bit soft in some of the darker interior scenes. The sound is wonderfully detailed and fully immersive, a nice surprise for such a dialogue-driven film.
The bonus features section is nice, if not exhaustive. There is an audio commentary with Friedkin, who discusses the film’s themes, casting and performances, and his battles with the ratings board over Joe’s content. It’s a great listen, especially for fans of the veteran filmmaker’s work. Next up is Southern Fried Hospitality, a twenty-five minute look at the film’s origins as a stage play and its evolution into the feature film, featuring Friedkin, Letts, and the cast. Next up, two bits from SXSW: a taped introduction to the film by William Friedkin, who couldn’t attend the film’s premiere at the festival; and a forty-minute Q&A moderated by Ain’t It Cool News’ honcho Harry Knowles, with McConaughey, Gershon, Hirsch, Letts, and Deschanel. Lastly, we have the “White Trash” red band trailer for the flick, featuring uncensored footage that better represents the film’s tone than any green band, “approved for all audiences” trailer could hope to. All in all, a decent package.
While this film is most certainly not for everyone, those looking for a well-made, well-acted gutpunch of a flick would do well to check out Killer Joe immediately. Just be sure that you’ve already eaten. And here’s hoping that it wasn’t fried chicken.
4 out of 5
3 1/2 out of 5