Dir. William Friedkin, 103mins,USA, 2012
Review by Matthew Rodgers
Ripped like a fresh scab from Tracy Lett’s stage play of the same name, Killer Joe is a brutal tour de force from legendary Exorcist director William Friedkin that features one of the most viscerally memorable scenes of 2012, and in Matthew McConaughey, a performance so confidently against type and skin crawlingly intimidating that it demands to be seen.
Lost in a grim, rain drenched, neon soaked, deep south America, amongst an underbelly of pulp noir caricatures, we find Emile Hirsch’s feral, debt ridden, Chris Smith. A man willing to set the gears in motion on a plot to murder his own mother so that he can get the local gangsters off his back. Coercing his simpleton father (Haden Church), they are family with barrel scraping morality, so much so that as well as plotting a Shakespearean style killing, they are happy to pimp out the youngest member of the trailer trash family, Dottie (Juno Temple), as a form of payment.
Recipient of this questionable illegal tender is McConaughey’s titular assassin; hired to take out the absent mother for her life insurance, he soon becomes infatuated by Dottie, a relationship which grows even more untenable when Chris’ payment plan hits the buffers and things take a turn for the decidedly dark and twisted.
Killer Joe is a film that gets under your skin in a way that not even a shower will shift; the discomfort arising from not just from the bat-shit crazy narrative twists, but the fact that you’ll find yourself laughing at some of the bleakest comedy since Fight Club. The odd balance between full frontal nudity, extreme acts of cruelty, and one of the best visual gags of the last decade involving a loose thread on a jacket, all combine in a schizophrenically successful manner.
Much has been made of the violence on display, with memories of Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me, primarily stirred by the wickedly violent final act, but as nasty as the finger lickin pay-off is, it’s only there to exacerbate the consequences of the Faustian pact that Chris makes with Killer Joe, and it takes some real balls for the plot to push to the ludicrously dark recesses it does and still maintain the dramatic tension.
McConaughey finally delivers on the languid charm exuded all those years ago in A Time to Kill; here channelling that Texan drawl into a more predatory anti-hero, one that will make you sweat with guilt should you decide to root for his ten-gallon wearing sheriff. It’s a performance of all-consuming charisma and thankfully there isn’t a Kate Hudson in sight.
That shouldn’t mean you forget the likes of the always welcome Gina Gershon, putting literally everything on display in an all-out confrontational role, Haden Church’s dim-witted goon, or Hirsh’s twitchy, unsympathetic would-be protagonist.
But its Friedkin’s renewed vigour, ably assisted by the brilliant eye of legendary cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel (The Passion of the Christ), who helps to frame the scuzz, which is the most noteworthy aspect of Killer Joe. For a film to dirty your hands and bother your consciousness beyond the boundaries of the cinema screen, to prompt discussion about whether it’s misogynistic, or if you’ll ever eat a KFC (other fried chicken outlets are available) again, then it’s an overwhelming success, and symptomatic of a film from the man who made a teenage girl masturbate with a crucifix.