Review: Friedkin's 'Killer Joe' is Twisted, Sadistic & Funny as Hell
by Jeremy Kirk
August 3, 2012
Killer Joe, the latest film written by Tracy Letts and directed by veteran filmmaker William Friedkin, is like if brilliance & insanity had a baby and decided to deep fry it. A film about dirty people doing dirty things to get out of dirty situations, it's trashy, sadistic and funny as hell, an interesting turn to camp for its director, who has never comfortably fit under any label. Killer Joe won't go down as Friedkin's crowning achievement, but as divisive as its subject matter and unlikable characters make it, it's hard to deny the thought and skill that went into every odd left turn it takes. It will likely end up one of the best of the year.
While the film's most interesting aspect is the character after which it gets its title and the powerhouse turn by its star, the main focus is on the Smith family, Chris (Emile Hirsch), his kid sister Dottie (Juno Temple), and their father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church). Down on their luck and with the mentality to keep them there, they devise a scheme that could get them some quick cash. Chris and Dottie's mother, Ansel's ex-wife, has a $50,000 life insurance policy, which Dottie receives upon the woman's death. They plan to hire a killer, that would be Joe (Matthew McConaughey), to take the woman out and collect on the policy.
Joe, a detective in the Dallas police department, is eccentric when they first meet him, and eccentricity quickly turns to uncomfortable presence, the kind of person whose mindset you can never gauge. You just know you don't want to see him turn mean. When Chris and Ansel can't come up with the $25,000 advance to pay the hired killer, Joe agrees to take Dottie as a "retainer." This is just the first of a series of nails falling out of this house of an idea the Smiths have devised.
Just lke their previous collaboration, the film titled Bug, also a Letts adaptation of one of his own plays, the writer's concoction of his characters and Friedkin's way of visualizing them in all their grand tastelessness. Bug was a film that made us question the sanity of a single man, one who had an otherworldly control over one woman. In Killer Joe, the idea of control stays with the man whose grip on reality might be slipping, but its the naivety and outright stupidity of most of the film's characters that drives the story forward.
With each roadblock Chris and his sister and father run into trying to get Joe to go through with the plan, you can almost see pieces of Chris, played with effective unease and frustration by Emile Hirsch, falling off of him. It's as if the event impeding his plan to commit a horrible act is wearing away at his mind and, in time, even his body. Hirsch's ability to project exhaustion as if every breath hurts him is one of the many aspects that clinch the character's frame of mind.
Once again, William Friedkin has a perfect grip on his direction, every movement and composition in the film playing on two or even three levels. He allows the characters in this a lot of space, often shoots from a distance to create large gaps in the frame. Killer Joe has that deep Texas feel about it that makes you feel somewhat grimy even without the unrefined nature of its characters, and the extra padding Friedkin incorporates into nearly every shot gives the sense of this world that even Chris points out has "too much damn space."
Words of enthusiasm have to be said for the performances Juno Temple and Thomas Hayden Church give as Dottie and Ansel, respectively. Temple plays both sides of her character, the innocence but possibly with something darker bubbling under the surface, with equal conviction. Hayden Church is typically bumbling in his part, but that's never not funny. It's hard to put someone down for going back to something they're exceptionally good at. Gina Gershon as Sharla, Ansel's new wife who has her own ideas about the plan, is entertaining in just how unrefined the beautiful actress can be.
Then comes Joe. Then comes where the film takes that dark edge that it has been riding, and yanks a hard left crossing every line imaginable. There are twisted things found throughout Killer Joe, but none compare to the moments of absurd domination this character has over the other characters, mostly Dottie. Matthew McConaughey, an actor who has finally embraced the strangeness he can bring to these characters, is on fire here. Charming and charming and charming until he's not very charming any more, McConaughey always gives Joe that vicious look in his eyes, as if he could snap at any minute for any reason. It wouldn't be a very interesting movie if Joe never did, so it's fair to say he does. When that happens, the line between good and bad taste, normalcy and absurd, doesn't even exist any more. The movie, the character, and McConaughey most importantly go off the deep end, and the results are unsettling but endlessly fascinating. It is without question Matthew McConaughey's most fearless and best performance to date.
Killer Joe the movie is a lot like Killer Joe the character. It ways on your nerves simply with the sticky, hot atmosphere it builds and the sleaziness of its characters and their actions. It makes you laugh, but it's more often than not an uncomfortable laughter, the kind you try to stifle since you're not entirely sure anyone else is joining in. Once Joe reaches his boiling point, though, the film does, as well. The consequences are swift and merciless, and the results more than a little graphic. With Friedkin's expertise as a storyteller hitting every mark and McConaughey absolutely unchained, Killer Joe is the kind of film where bad taste on screen leaves a good taste in your mouth. That rarely happens.
Jeremy's Rating: 9 out of 10