With much the same dark humor that made The Exorcist a provocative hit in 1973, director William Friedkin returns to the feature film form. His offering is the accomplished, occasionally masterful, but ultimately frustrating Killer Joe.
Killer Joe stars Matthew McConaughey as Joe Cooper (aka Killer Joe), a lawman moonlighting as a contract killer. Joe is contacted by Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), a young man desperate to kill his estranged mother so that he can claim a large amount of insurance. Joe is driven by the fact that his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) is an alcoholic, his stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) is a slut and his younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) is the picture of innocence, in need of saving from a dreadful life. He is also in debt to a local gang lord.
When Joe realizes that Chris has no money to pay him for the hit he turns down the deal, before proposing the dubious idea of a ‘retainer’: that is to say he wants permission to engage in an adult relationship with Dottie, despite the fact that she is only twelve. Chris allows his desperation get ahead of him and agrees to the deal, before promptly regretting it.
McConaughey’s turn as the leather clad Joe Cooper is utterly compelling; he is charming, amusing, assertive, immoral and sadistic. McConaughey wraps up all of these disparate characteristics seamlessly, with the classicism of Robert Michum in Night of the Hunter. He is a disgusting pleasure to watch.
Juno Temple is the film’s second revelation. While the twenty-two year old does not convince entirely as a twelve year old, she could certainly pass for fourteen. The sheer innocence of her performance is plenty to revile us at Joe’s sexual advances. The most disturbing factor though is that he treats her with more respect than any of her family members, in spite of his off kilter moral values.
Friedkin’s direction is electric throughout, quite literally at times: lighting and rain set the scene of this trailer trash noir. There is often great wit to be found in Friedkin’s camerawork and tense scenes can become hilarious in an instant. One raucously funny moment sees Sharla remove a loose thread from Ansel’s jacket, only to unthread the entire shoulder. The director shifts between scenes of comedy, tenderness and violence, blending them into one bizarre story world.
The film’s strength is in the ride. It is a nauseating, thrilling, riotous film with a skewed moral center and brilliantly defined characters. As the film builds to its intense conclusion (in a scene revolving around fried chicken) it showcases Friedkin’s grasp of cinematic extremes, but the build up exceeds the payoff.
Ultimately Killer Joe leaves us feeling appropriately reviled, but also somewhat deflated; when an audience experiences this much madness they are also due tangible closure.