Killer Joe is a jet black comedy and marks the apparent return from obscurity by William Friedkin, best known for The French Connection, The Exorcist and Cruising and not as well known for his less groundbreaking killer tree film. With Killer Joe, is Friedkin back at his best?
Chris Smith (Judd Hirsch) needs money fast and he hatches a plan with his dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) and little sister Dottie (Juno Temple) to get a hold of his mother’s life insurance money. To do this, they hire Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). As is the norm for black crime comedies, hardly anything goes to plan.
Based on a play by Tracy Letts, as was Friedkin’s recent Bug, the film is quite minimalist, with only a few locations and not very many actors. Apart from a motorcycle chase and the loud, Gothic atmospherics, the film is relatively static. The film is largely made up of scenes of people shouting at each other, the characters as suffocating as the setting. Hirsch is particularly loud, but he is far from out of place when the first scene involves thunder and lightning, torrential rain, full frontal nudity, raging arguments and two more physical fights. The film establishes itself early on as an over the top piece of pulp fiction with no likable characters and a film that delights in showing horrible people doing horrible things to each other. Humanist and subtle it is not, but enjoyable it can be.
The film noticeably cools when Killer Joe is onscreen, though Friedkin does emphasis the crunch of his boots and the snap of his cigarette lighter, mixing them up on the soundtrack to a comical degree. McConaughey gives a great performance, his Killer Joe a relatively quiet and reserved character, though one whose underlying sadism is barely concealed. In the film’s two main unsettling scenes, McConaughey slowly eases the psychopath out of his character until he is a wholly horrifying creature, in one scene bending vampirically over Juno Temple and emitting guttural moans; the other will be discussed further below. In the scene with Temple, Friedkin, surprisingly given the rest of the film, cuts away before the worst happens, presumably aware that, in this scene in particular, the imagination works worst.
Killer Joe is often very funny, if even in the way it charts the inevitable downfall of the family. In fact, the twists and turns that the plot takes are often presented for comic effect, with the key revelations more likely to trigger laughter than gasps. Here, it is Thomas Haden Church who shines out, playing the utterly useless and mainly contemptible father, who initially resists his son’s plan only because it is too complicated for him. One scene with him and Gershon in the lawyer’s office is a classic in deadpan slapstick.
However, Friedkin’s main priority with Killer Joe is to shock and there is one much written about scene towards the end of the film involves a fried chicken leg that is deeply uncomfortable, mainly because one suspects that it is being played for laughs. Presumably justified by the turn that the plot takes, the extremity and perversity of the scene coupled with the film’s awkward mother-whore dichotomy make it a difficult scene to get past. The symbolism is worn on the film’s sleeve - Sharla as the middle-aged whore who must be punished and Dottie as the virginal innocent who must be celebrated. Though presented so didactically that it can’t be taken without a little possibly-intended irony, the severity of Sharla’s punishment, which is directly associated with her being a ‘whore’, is a little too leering and misogynistic. It is true, however, that the film has little good to say about males and it may turn out that Friedkin is actually saying something interesting about how some of us can be shocked by such intellectual matters while laughing our way through the misanthropic plot about a son hiring a hit man to kill his own mother for her insurance money. That said, Friedkin deifies Dottie and demonises Sharla to such an extent that it is difficult to not leave the film feeling slightly tainted by the film’s rather dodgy sexual politics.
Killer Joe is, on the whole, a rather grim but enjoyable film. It might say more about your own tastes and pre-occupations than you want it to, depending on how shocked or not you may be by it. Ultimately, Friedkin set out to make a grim crime comedy and, for the most part, he succeeded in making a very well executed one, surprising in view of some of his other more recent troubled films. Killer Joe is as clever and funny as it is shocking and distancing, a little unlikeable but often great fun and with a killer of an ending.