Killer Joe is the latest film from William Friedkin, the man who brought us the 70s classics The Exorcist and The French Connection. This violent, darkly comic picture is based on Tracy Letts’ play of the same name and centres on a poor family from West Dallas, Texas. Bitterly fed up with their trailer-trash existence, Chris (Emile Hirsch) concocts a plan to have his Mum taken care of by gun for hire Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). As his sister Dottie (Juno Temple) is the beneficiary, the inheritance in case of death will go to her, and so with his dim-witted father Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church) they set their plan in motion. As they can’t afford to pay Joe until after the deed is done, they agree to give Dottie up as a ‘retainer’. The Fargo-esque plot is doomed from the start, and what ensues is a hilarious, violent and at times deeply disturbing family drama.
The southern gothic elements form a powerful component of the film, intensifying the satire and creating an ominous mood and atmosphere. Bleak stormy weather, a rabid pit-bull on a chain, and a full frontal shot of Gina Gershon set the tone early. The hillbilly caricatures that comprise the Smith family humour and infuriate in equal measure. Our introduction to this dysfunctional family, deranged and screaming at each other in their disgusting trailer park home, creates a foreboding sense of wreckless irresponsibility that you can’t help feel will land them in trouble. And sure enough it does.
Matthew McConaughy is great as the intriguing and charismatic Joe Cooper. He’s dark and mysterious; amodern day cowboy dressed all in black, travelling around in his unmarked car. We see his badge only very briefly before it disappears, and along with it any inkling that this man cares in the slightest about the law which he’s sworn to uphold. He’s not so much above the law as a warped manifestation of it: powerful, unaccountable and dangerous if you don’t play by the rules. His performance willhave viewers wondering in frustrated bemusement as to why he spent years starring in below par rom-coms. His screen presence is as uncomfortable as it is absorbing; a characteristic of the film as a whole. He makes it difficult to watch at times, but impossible to look away.
Dottie is the only character the viewer has anything verging on sympathy for, and in a way she’s the ultimate victim of the story – left in a quite horrific situation by the incompetence of her family. Throughout we are given brief glimpses of her intelligence as well as her innocence, both of which have been corrupted and all but destroyed by her upbringing.
In one of the film’s best scenes she meets Joe for the first time. Despite winning her trust with his southern charm, there’s a strange sense of infatuation behind his eyes, a predatory look in his face that the viewer can’t help but notice. The most exciting thing he’s seen on the job, he tells Dottie at her request, involved a man who set his genitals on fire as a way to get back at his wife for her infidelity. There’s a look of amazement and disbelief etched across his face throughout the retelling, an arrogance of sorts as he revels in the stupidity of the whole debacle. Here Letts brilliantly gives us a glimpse of the sort of extreme incompetence he’ll come to mockingly and brutally exploit later.
The excess, brutality and ridiculousness of the whole film, which reaches a most extreme and fitting climax in the final 20 minutes, is where it’s appeal really lies. During the engrossing final act, Joe exerts his complete superiority in ruthless and seemingly inevitable fashion. The tension builds unbearably as he calmly and effortlessly outwits the Smiths, painfully exposing them over a family dinner. There’s an uneasy feeling throughout that the full capacity of Joe’s madness and cruelty hasn’t yet been revealed, until he swiftly and violently carries out his own sick, twisted version of justice
The film was slapped with an NC-17 in the USA, all but destroying its potential for commercial success… not that it was ever likely to be a box office hit. In speaking about this, Friedkin brilliantly noted that ‘we’d have had to kill it in order to save it’, echoing US sentiments towards Vietnam. Luckily for us Friedkin, unlike those before him, saw the flawed logic present in this illusory ideal and in sticking with his guns left for our enjoyment an enjoyable, twisted satirical picture that will disturb and amuse in equal measure. It’s a thought provoking, entertaining and fascinating film, packed with excellent performances, razor-sharp writing and a climax that will stay with you for some time.