One of the titans of 1970s US cinema, William Friedkin crash landed with Sorcerer (1977) and since then has endured controversy, indifference, more failures and even ridicule. But for a certain generation he’s become something of a cult figure. He is a master filmmaker whose results on screen are not always so masterful. So if Killer Joe proves to be his last movie (he’s 76 and doesn’t make them very often), then we can say Friedkin will have not only made his best film since To Live & Die in L.A. (1985), but regain some of the acclaim that has alluded him for so long. If Bug (2007) was an entre then Killer Joe is a banquet (though hardly fine dining given the grotesque events of the movie).
Based on the stage play by Tracy Letts, Friedkin presents a macabre black comedy which is absolutely designed to push buttons. Here we have a sort of Jim Thompson millieu reconfigured as a white trash hell. Killer Joe would be a crime caper if the characters had any brains. The film exists in a world of low rent trailer homes, empty pool halls, pizza parlours and bars all on the wrong side of the tracks. The sense of poverty is strong. The film is vulgar, disturbing but also, rather curiously, under cut with a berserk sense of romance. Matthew McConaughey excels as Joe Cooper, a Dallas detective who moonlights as a contract killer. A truly idiotic soul named Chris (Emile Hirsch) hires ‘Killer Joe’ to whack his mother so he can collect on $50,000 insurance money.
It’s really saying something about these characters when a cold-blooded hitman emerges as something of a knight in shining armour. The final scenes are truly strange, terrifying even, and some of the best Friedkin has ever staged. There is a playfulness missing from a lot of the director’s other work. Joe falls for Dottie and wants to take her away from the family. The setup, initially, is pure slavery but something akin to love soon blossoms. The true villains are the truly feckless lot conspiring to enrich themselves with insurance money in a scam that was always destined to go south. Their comic bungling has serious consequences. This is where the cruel vein of jet-black comedy comes in.
Killer Joe benefits greatly from a filmmaker rediscovering his game (even sense of purpose), clever writing and committed performances. Matthew McConaughey has never been better. Joe is creepy and maybe even downright evil, but he’s also got a heart – which none of the others seem to possess. He falls for Dottie (a superb Juno Temple) and in lieu of $25,000 up front for the gig, takes her as a retainer. Joe becomes a fixture in the lives of his clients and acts as a very strange saviour to the young girl. The nature of Chris and Dottie’s relationship, too, might also be incestuous though is never dwelled upon. Chris is enraged when he finds out about his sister and Joe’s blossoming romance and acts more jilted and threatened ex-boyfriend than over-protective brother.
The film does have some limitations (given it is based on a play) and can be seen as laying on several aspects a bit thick. This is a director who has never does anything by halves. However Friedkin has gone for a visceral impact regarding the material and, yes, it is a bit grim, with a rape scene that will put you off fried chicken for life, but works ever so well. The sound design (always of massive importance), the everyday, Poortown USA milieu and night-time expressionist photography allows the director’s film to slowly creep up on you.
Killer Joe is up there with The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer and Cruising as his most intriguing work. Flawed for sure, Friedkin has fashioned a truly freakish and brilliant comedy-drama, and for fans of the director, will likely be met with some kind of joy. Given he’s already made two films based on Tracy Letts’ work why not make it a trilogy, Billy?
UK Release Date: 29th June