William Friedkin will always be one of my favourite ’70s directors, and as he struggles to get a foothold during any other decade, the label feels more and more apt. The ’80s saw To Live and Die in L.A. (and its soundtrack by Wang Chung) receive a positive critical response and eventual cult reception, but since then we’ve seen quite a lack of quality films directed by the man, at least up until 2006′s Bug. Bug was a very strange beast, walking a line between melodrama and psychological horror as its leads fell in love in a single room of a run-down motel. It’s a rather unpleasant film, but it’s certainly worth a look.
Tracy Letts wrote the screenplay for Bug based on his original play of the same name. For Killer Joe, Letts and Friedkin team up again, but this time they inject a large dose of dark comedy into the proceedings, and the results are absolutely fantastic. Letts originally wrote the play when he was in his twenties (1991, first performed 1993) and the film keeps plenty of that messy and youthful energy.
Down-on-his-luck loser Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch, whose facial hair makes him look like a young, svelte Jack Black) has run into some trouble and needs to come up with a lot of money fast. He talks to his slow-witted father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), about the possibility of killing his mother, Ansel’s ex-wife, for the insurance money. The pair decide everyone would actually be a lot happier if she was dead, but lacking the ability (by which I mean, the smarts) to do it themselves, they decide to call in a professional.
Enter Matthew McConaughy as “Killer” Joe Cooper. Killer Joe is a local detective who inexplicably has a successful business as a hitman for hire. Unfortunately for Chris and Ansel, he always demands to be paid up front, so their plan of splitting the money when the policy comes through falls flat. However, Killer Joe suggests they may be able to work out some sort of retainer, as he has his eye on Chris’ virginal sister, Dottie (Juno Temple).
Matthew McConaughy’s performance is the main highlight of a film which has many. His professionalism at first gives the impression of a man above the trailer-trash family he has to deal with (which also includes Gina Gershon as Ansel’s new wife), but we soon discover he’s just as disturbed and depraved as the rest of them – even more so, come the climax. I’d like to think McConaughy is finally finished with the romantic dreck that made him famous (The Wedding Planner, Failure to Launch, etc), and as this year also sees him take the lead in Jeff Nichols’ Mud and Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy, I’m hoping it’s a sign of more interesting roles to come.
Killer Joe is a trashy piece of pure exploitation and it succeeds by never claiming to be anything else. Obviously, it won’t be to everyone’s taste. The characterisation doesn’t go very far, but if you need someone to learn a lesson or overcome adversity or realise the error of their ways – you’re watching the wrong film. Thomas Haden Church gives a great reactionary performance where he merely utters a single line in response to whatever is going on, and it always had the audience I saw it with laughing very hard. That’s about as deep as his character gets, but that’s all that’s needed here.
If you’re looking for a hilarious and depraved cinematic outing, you can’t go wrong with Killer Joe. It has all the makings of a future cult classic. The term “unforgettable climax” feels rather over-used nowadays, but Killer Joe earns it with a spectacle unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I hope this great pairing of Friedkin and Letts has more life left in it, because this was a hell of a lot of fun!