Warning: This review, depending on how you read it, contains spoilers, or at least, spoilers of spoilers. Sorry.
Texan noir has almost become a genre in itself of recent years. Starting with Blood Simple in 1984 and taking in such gritty, sweaty classics as Red Rock West (1993) and Oliver Stone’s tripped out U-Turn (1997) and Michael Winterbottom’s study of humiliation in The Killer Inside Me (2010), we now have Killer Joe from William Friedkin, a man exclusively revered in the seventies. Friedkin has directed a script by Tracey Letts adapted from his own play, as the opening credits make very, very clear. No ego driven auteurism from Friedkin here.
Lett’s story is your usual, run of the mill tale of matricide, using your young sister’s virginity as a bargaining chip, hired killers, insurance scams, heavies on motorbikes and a lot of fried chicken. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch – channeling Jack Black, badly) needs money to pay off gambling debts, he approaches Ansel Smith (Thomas Haden Church, dumb, drunk), his father, who instantly (instantly) agrees to hire a killer to do away with Chris’ mother, his ex-wife, to pick up a life insurance policy worth $50,000. Throw in Ansel’s current wife, Sharla (Gina Gerschon, introduced vagina first, as she always seems to be) and Dottie (Juno Temple), Chris’ away with the fairies, unwilling Lolita of a sister and it’s going to be a long week in Texas. Chris and Ansel hire Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, different from the Matthew McConaughey in How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, but we’ll let SAG sort that out), a detective with a sideline in hitmannery (hitmonging?), on spec. Joe will get paid when the insurance company pay up. Until then, he reserves the right to fuck Dottie as a “retainer”. What could go wrong?
Obviously, everything. The Smith family double cross, cheat, steal and beg for mercy from each other unaware that they have little to fear from each other having invited (like a vampire) Joe Cooper into their lives, the outcome of the situation is no longer in their hands.
McConaughey’s performance as Joe is being treated as a revelation, but that feels like rewarding him for phoning in performances in wet-eyed, first date dross for years. Every actor seems to play a psychopath at some point and this just happens to be McConaughey’s turn. Kudos to him then for playing Joe with a rare sense of poise and control. His eyes bore and he keeps his voice low, menacing yet disarming, he stalks each scene like a snake, every move deliberate, every thought hidden. His two scenes that will undoubtedly become synonymous with this film, let’s call them “the seduction scene” and “the KFC scene”, are excruciatingly uncomfortable (EBFS sat through Austrian paedophile satire, Michael, with less squirming) and credit must go to McConaughey for commiting to each scene and following through to the end.
Killer Joe tries hard to lose its stage roots, taking the characters out of the trailer (where all the good stuff happens, unfortunately) and throwing them about Texas’ blasted landscapes. However, the dialogue, undoubtedly pointed and powerful on stage, can seem high-minded and preachy occasionally, as though the characters were still addressing an audience rather than each other. Glengarry Glen Ross will not be quaking at the top of the stage adaptation pile (Yes, we know about On The Waterfront…)
It’s in the third act where Killer Joe takes on its own identity, having had their plan totally fall apart, the Smith family find themselves at Joe’s mercy inside their trailer. What had been a fairly average noir film suddenly leaps into almost southern gothic horror as the extent of Joe’s perversions become clear. Horribly violent, disgustingly humiliating and wilfully unpleasant, this denouement, contained to one location with an almost Polanski like zeal, drags the film out of the gutter to some much darker places. Finally having fingerprints of its own, Killer Joe leaves the film open-ended and the audience open-mouthed. It may be a one watch film, but it’s a hell of a watch.