The sweaty Texan world of Killer Joe is beset with the buzzed flicker of neon above ramshackle old trailer parks, a rain lashed, decrepit landscape inhabited by the under belly of society. Walking the streets are deadbeats and dimwits with cracked skin who are cloaked in ragged clothes and scraggly facial hair, growling in heavy regional accents.
The family which director William Friedkin and writer Tracy Letts (their second cinematic collaboration) choose to focus on in this deep fried, grubby world is that of the dysfunctional Smiths. The painfully useless patriarch is Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), a down on his luck welder in his second marriage to the highly sexualised Sharla (Gina Gershon). Then there are the two kids. Dottie (Juno Temple), a pixie like young girl has yet to lose her innocence and the brother, Chris (Emile Hirsch), is a failed drug dealer who owes a lot of money to some very dangerous people.
In order to appease his debts with the creepy drug lords, Chris instigates a plot to murder his estranged birth mother with his father so they can pick up the insurance from her death, which would go to Dottie. In order to carry out the plan flawlessly and make it look accidental, they hire Detective “Killer” Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a crooked cop with enough knowledge of police procedures to pull off a significant hit.
Joe’s fee proves to be more than they can afford for the time being, so they wait for the insurance check to clear and they strike a deal that makes Dottie the retainer. As unforeseen complications play out, Joe becomes further embedded in the family and things begin to take a very, very dark turn.
This marks Friedkin’s second collaboration with writer Tracy Letts. The two previously worked together on Bug, which is a film that now almost looks like a dry test run for the kind of cinematic world that Killer Joe inhabits. Swapping deteriorating motel rooms for the cramped conditions of a trailer, Killer Joe plays out with the same mephitic atmosphere of claustrophobia that thickened the breathing space of Bug. As Friedkin’s camera gets in tighter, so do our throats and our breathing functions begin to waver.
Friedkin’s terrific build of oesophagus tightening suspense is aided by an absolutely staggering performance from Matthew McConaughey. This year you can fully expect to see a full blown career revival for McConaughey. Whilst never really hitting the bottom feeding level of actors like Mickey Rourke and John Travolta, McConaughey had hit a creative roadblock through an intolerable amount of bad romantic comedies. Now, he clearly is fully willing to shatter his onscreen persona and craft a whole new career for himself.
He is mesmerising as the mephistophelean Killer Joe and it is a performance that is brilliantly nuanced, as soon as the character appears on screen the tone changes. McConaughey’s Southern gentlemen attitude is scratched away as his character’s charm and politeness goes a little too far. Every single line he says is etched with menace and power. In the relationship with the Juno Temple character (who is equally excellent), his character’s power to control others is shown through the most delicate of touches, the most simple of lines with the tiniest hint of malevolence brewing beneath.
But McConaughey is just as powerful when his monstrous character is allowed to go down to its darkest depths. The scene that has been talked about the most, the scene of sexual humiliation involving a fried chicken leg, is a scene that is as powerful and upsetting as it is because of how far McConaughey is willing to go to bring the audience the true understanding of his character. He has been working toward this performance throughout his career and he has managed to craft a character who you can’t take your eyes off.
With this, Bernie, Magic Mike, The Paperboy and Mud, 2012 is proving to be the year of McConaughey, where he can finally be respected as a great actor. And actor of range and subtlety, who isn’t afraid to take the piss out of himself or challenge his abilities.
As a director, Friedkin is fascinated with the dark side of human nature as well as the nature of evil in humanity. This has been dealt with very broadly in films like The Exorcist and in Bug it is done on a more disturbing, psychological level. Here, Friedkin’s fascination is with the extremes of evil and namely: how far is someone willing to go to get what they want? As the narrative progresses, the morals of several characters are severely compromised and the heightened glimpse into human nature shows the greed and desperation at the lower end of society, particularly, how deep people are willing to sink in order to stay out of trouble.
However, within the compromise of character morality, the morals of the filmmakers also begin to get dubious as the sexual politics of the film begin to get hazy. The scenes which have been called into question are there to vividly tell you how depraved these people are and to make you very, very uncomfortable. Whether the blurring of sexual politics to create a feeling of unease in the audience is acceptable or not comes down to the opinion of the viewer. Friedkin and Letts just about get away with it, as they are telling a very particular story about a very particular group of people in a very heightened, generic atmosphere that feels like a logical progression of their story.
Killer Joe, although originally a play, doesn’t feel like a piece of material that is trapped in the theatre. Letts can write impeccably well, lacing truly memorable moments of pitch black humour and wonderful dialogue that feels naturalistic, while Friedkin presents some truly cinematic moments through set pieces and beautiful photography to make sure Killer Joe isn’t stagnant on screen.
As a filmmaker, Friedkin has lost none of his power to shock or cause discomfort and at 76 the man is still making films as if he were still making material like The French Connection. The film is deliberately a very dark and very nasty piece of work, lashed with scenes of brutal violence and humiliating moments of sexuality, but it very definitely is of a piece. Films like Killer Joe, that are designed to get under the audience’s skin, are rarely made anymore and are rarely so powerful. In this case, the film is worth seeing for a number of reasons, but mostly for a revelatory Matthew McConaughey and for a director who is getting back into the stride he hasn’t had for nearly 30 years.