William Friedkin belongs to a small caste of directors, alongside the likes of Clint Eastwood and the late Sidney Lumet, who despite heightened age, never appeared to slow down much throughout their careers. Friedkin’s latest film, Killer Joe, propels forward with the guttural, audacious energy of a hungry young filmmaker, immediately becoming one of his finest efforts to date in the process.
Reminiscent perhaps most recently of The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, Killer Joe is a pulpier-than-pulp riff that serves as a travelogue of the seedy Texan underbelly, from ramshackle trailer parks, to the corrupt corridors of authority, and the crime lords in between. Young Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) belongs to a trailer trash family, including father Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church), step-mother Sharla (Gina Gershon), and sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Falling upon hard times after owing money to the local crime boss, Chris suggests cashing in his absentee mother’s $50,000 life insurance policy by having her offed.
And who would they enlist to perform such a task? Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a Dallas PD Detective who moonlights as a highly intelligent, ruthless assassin. However, Chris’ inability to provide payment upfront compels Joe to seek a retainer, in Dottie, requisitioning her as his own sex slave until the mother’s policy is cashed in. Naturally, little goes as it should, leading to a blistering climax with surprising implications and somehow, unexpected amusement.
Though at a core level this is a gamy pulp yarn that most skilled directors could have weaved into a solid thriller, an awake and rejuvenated Friedkin ups the ante and does something quite remarkable. Emphasising the black gallows humour of Tracey Letts’ 1993 play, he spins a daring, brave riff on the Southern backwater undercurrent, indulging stereotype for sure, yet with McConaughey’s dogged, frighteningly sadistic Joe, unleashing something very different indeed.
Matthew McConaughey is an actor at once extremely talented and absolutely maddening, opting so often for the safe studio picture rather than the more substantial ones his talents should naturally invite. Recent turns in Tropic Thunder and The Lincoln Lawyer have nevertheless proved encouraging, and here, he delivers a performance so dementedly off-the-charts that it is liable to shock, dismay and alienate as many as it impresses, chiefly the many fans flocking to see it precisely for his charming appeal. That McConaughey is able to take that suave persona he has fashioned over the years and transform it into something insidious, predatory and yet somehow hilarious, is a testament to the man’s raw, magnetic talent. Floating in and out of the picture in much the same way as Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh did in the aforementioned Coens’ picture, Joe is a spectre of death who all characters without fail come to fear.
Though McConaughey is the absolute standout – and were it not for the film’s American NC-17 rating, he might have merited a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination – the entire cast is spot-on. Hirsch, usually earmarked as the pretty boy, is bloodied and dirtied up here, as are most of his co-stars with the exception of Joe himself; Thomas Hayden Church is at once hilariously out-of-step and ultimately sympathetic as Chris’ clueless father, while Juno Temple – an on-the-rise British actress who continues to shine bright – is both angelic and a sexually realised beauty for Joe’s perusal. Gina Gershon, meanwhile, going literally full frontal in her part, fully commits to an extremely challenging role.
It does not take much reading about Killer Joe to uncover some of its more controversial elements, specifically a late-day scene that’ll likely put you off KFC for the foreseeable future. Less canny critics will freely dispense with spoilers; simply know that Friedkin’s film pulls absolutely no punches, fully indulging the marrow-rich pulp of its premise, with all of the violence and misogyny that this entails.
That said, shocking it is how much Killer Joe will have you laughing alongside all the depravity; the very scene in question will likely polarise audiences, inviting agape shock or uproarious laughter, though perhaps the latter serves more as a defense mechanism than anything. Still, through its complex web of double-crosses and damning revelations, it remains acutely aware of its place as loony entertainment rather than a fastidious meditation on the human condition. The manner in which it all ends, one of the most intense sequences in recent film memory, sticks firmly true to that notion.
Matthew McConaughey steals the show with a ferocious, transformative performance worthy of awards attention, and Friedkin restores his stature as an architect of taut, muscular cinema.
Killer Joe is in cinemas now.