Whenever I get asked what my favourite film of all time is, my immediate answer is always “The Exorcist”. It is such an amazing film and along with its predecessor, “The French Connection”, director William Friedkin created one of the best one-two punches in 1970’s cinema. However since then, he has been erratic making both good and bad films, but little has lived up to his previous classics (I should point out that due to its poor presentation on home video, I have yet to see “Scorcerer” ). Each new film Friedkin makes, I live in hope that it will be close to the brilliance of those two previous films, and “Killer Joe” is his brand new film.
“Killer Joe” is set in the dirty and grimy trailer trash world of Texas populated by desperate greedy people who would do anything for a quick buck. One of these people, Chris, is in a serious bind due to the fact that he owes the local heavy some serious cash. Because of this, Chris comes to his father, Ansel, with a plan to murder his own mother and split her insurance money, valued at $50,000, between them. Chris has heard of a guy, nicknamed “Killer Joe”, who is actually a detective but has a little business on the side where he kills people for money. Chris initiates a meeting with Joe but when he cannot come up with the payment up-front like Joe demands, the deal falls through, until Joe witnesses Dottie, Chris’s sister, who is waiting outside. Dottie has the body of a teenager but the mind of a young girl, and Joe decides he will assassinate Chris’s mum on one condition, he gets to take Dottie as a retainer. After a small debate, Chris and his father agree to Joe’s terms and hire him for the job. As is the norm for these kind-of hardboiled thrillers, nothing goes as planned and people are continually being double-crossed until it all explodes in a violent finale.
“Killer Joe” is one seriously messed up film and I loved every second of it. It is mean, nasty, bloody and violent, but it is also funny as all heck. At the end of the day the film is really a black comedy which can be very tricky to get right. Friedkin gets the tone of the film absolutely spot-on. The brilliance of dark or black comedy is making the audience laugh at something that is so wrong or disgusting, that after they stop laughing, they are ashamed of themselves for doing so. “Killer Joe” has this in spades.
Right from the opening frame of the film, the shot of a rain-drenched trailer park, I knew I was going to love “Killer Joe”, it just felt authentic. The film has got amazing performances right across the board. I have been a big critic of Matthew McConaughey of late, as I felt that he had been wasting his obvious talent while sleepwalking through a string of endless romantic comedies that he had done. I felt that he was just taking the easy paycheck, but something has happened, because this year he is attached to some fine features and is once again showing how good he can be. The performance he gives as the titular character here, though, is easily the best thing that I have ever seen him do. He plays Joe as an efficient, take-no-shit kind of guy, however he does so with a quiet menace. He does not rant or rave, he speaks quietly and calmly, but when he speaks you had better listen because there is no doubt that this is a dangerous man. And those eyes, as Dottie says in the film “your eyes hurt”, taking about his piercing stare. When Joe is first introduced, Friedkin almost builds him into this mythic creature giving him a spectacular entrance – silhouetted against this bright light, it is such an awesome moment. McConaughey is definitely the standout here, so it seems strange to say that it is Thomas Hayden Church that steals the film as Ansel, Chris’s dim witted, five steps behind everyone else father. He is hilarious and his comic timing and straight man delivery perfect. Emile Hirsch is also great as Chris, the desperate guy who puts everything in motion, but it is Gina Gershon’s 100% commitment to her character and the story itself that really impresses. Her character, Sharla (who is Ansel’s current wife), has the hardest and most disturbing scene in the film and she never flinches from it. If she hadn’t committed fully to this scene it would have just fallen apart. The only person who misses the mark ever so slightly is Juno Temple as Dottie. Granted her role is probably the hardest in the film, playing a girl in a woman’s body, and she almost pulls it off, she is very brave in a lot of scenes, but there were times when I could feel her “acting”.
While the story of “Killer Joe” is actually a pretty trashy one, full of terrible people doing worse things to each other, William Friedkin’s handling of the material is anything but. It almost feels like he has been re-energized by “Killer Joe”, I was so impressed by his work here, and in my opinion it is definitely his best work since “The Exorcist”. It even has that dark, gritty feeling so prevalent in those great 1970’s genre films. What Friedkin has done well is disguised the story’s stage bound origins. The film is based on Tracy Letts play (Letts also wrote the screenplay for the film) but it rarely feels constrained by its origins as Friedkin has opened the story up beautifully that with the exception of the final scene, I never would have guessed that the story originated as a play. As I mentioned earlier, it is the tone that he gets so perfectly and creating a reality amongst the madness. As the story goes on, the film admittedly creates situations that are over the top, yet Friedkin and his actors, make it all feel natural.
Overall, I loved William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe”, it was gritty and mean spirited, uncompromising and surprisingly very funny. I particularly loved the ending which was hilarious in the blackest way possible. Beware though, due to the extremes of the film, it will not be for everyone.