Here is a movie that will not bore you. It may offend you, it may irritate and confuse you; it may make you laugh, it may make you squirm; it may seem like an intelligent satire or a tasteless comedy, or it may do none of the above. But if it makes you fall asleep, you may want to seek therapy.
It is directed by a man who knows how to get an audience’s attention: William Friedkin, the man behind iconic ’70s movies The Exorcist and The French Connection. The story centres on a hired killer who moonlights as a cop and comes across as a Southern Patrick Bateman. He is played, in a performance as good as any he’s given, by Matthew McConaughey, who gives a quiet, (sometimes) polite disposition to a vicious, twisted psychopath. His performance here is brilliantly controlled; although it’s his sexual and violent behaviour that will stick most in the mind, the majority of his time on screen is spent projecting rather than demonstrating violence and danger.
We are introduced to McConaughey’s ‘Killer’ Joe Cooper through a family for which the word ‘dysfunctional’ is somehow inadequate. Ansel Smith (Thomas Hayden Church) lives in a trailer park with his girlfriend Sharla (Gina Gershon, whose genitals enter the film before she does). Smith is, to put it mildly, a moron. His son Chris (Emile Hirsh) devises an ingenious money-making scheme: they’ll kill his mother. Ansel is all for it. Her life insurance money will go to Ansel’s daughter, Dottie (Juno Temple), which they’ll split after giving half the money to Joe for getting rid of the mother.
As anybody who’s ever seen a Coen brothers movie knows, it’s never that simple. Their first problem is that Joe wants the money up front, and they can’t get it until she’s dead. As he’s about to leave, Joe suggests a possible alternative: a ‘retainer’ until he gets his money. By this he means Dottie, Ansel’s daughter. Under the circumstances they take to this idea surprisingly easily, offering her up like – to quote an episode of Seinfeld – ‘some sort of medieval sexual payola.’
The movie is knowingly outrageous, and deliberately provocative. A scene between Joe and Dottie plays like the most notorious scene in Blue Velvet (also featuring a character called Dorothy). The dialogue is sharply written and entertaining, but it’s also deliberately jarring; as the movie progresses the characters’ responses become increasingly difficult to anticipate, and yet nobody ever comes close to breaking character. The entire central cast is just about without fault, with particularly memorable turns from Thomas Hayden Church and Gina Gershon, who give compelling and vivid personas to characters who could otherwise be too repulsive. And McConaughey, dressed like Jack Palance in Shane and entering the movie like the Shadow of Death, commands every scene he’s in, and reminds us what a good actor he can be in the right role.
Between them, Friedkin, writer Tracy Letts (who adapts the story from his own play), cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and the cast really make this movie work, although quite what this strange monster they’ve created is, I’m a bit of a loss to say. Halfway through my notes I find the word ‘morality’ followed by a question mark. I can’t remember if I was referring to the characters or the film, and perhaps that’s appropriate. There are exploitation movies that simply want attention (The Human Centipede 2), exploitation movies with artistic aspirations (Drive) and exploitation movies with political or social subtexts (Last House on the Left). I’m not sure which, if any, of these categories Killer Joe belongs to. Some people will not understand how anyone can find something like this entertaining but it entertained me, if that’s the right word. I can see why some of the movie’s key scenes would upset and offend people (and one might well put you off KFC for a while), but I can also believe that those characters would do those things. That is why I was glad there was a movie screen between us.
Killer Joe opens in the UK on June 29th and on limited US release from July 27th.