Review: Killer Joe

(William Friedkin, 2012, USA)
(Originally posted at Take One)

Marking the cinematic return of American auteur William Friedkin, provocative director of such films as seventies chiller The Exorcist and contentious Al Pacino thriller Cruising, Killer Joe sees the filmmaker returning to familiar territory, coupling a dark, sadistically humorous noirish palette with a story that began life on stage. Collaborating once again with playwright and screenwriter Tracy Letts, after a visualisation of his taught play Bug opened to mixed reviews in 2006, Friedkin familiarises himself with the tense aesthetics that made his previous works so coarsely memorable, yet subjects it to a story that revels in the nastiness of its characters and central moral complexions.

Finally breaking free from the reins of a slew of romantic comedies that did nothing but tarnish his evidently capable acting chops, Matthew McConaughey embodies the titular role of ‘Killer’ Joe, a stone faced, leather-clad cop who sidelines as an assassin for hire, using his expertise to meticulously cover his tracks. Entering the lives of a family of trailer trash deadbeats, fronted by numbskull father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), failed drug dealer Chris (a shaggy Emile Hirsch) – who owes the local loan shark a large sum of money, and his questionably loyal stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon), Joe is instructed to exterminate Chris’s estranged biological mother so they can exploit her sizable life insurance policy, splitting the money and rewarding Joe with a healthy fee. Yet, as complications inevitably arise, Joe becomes enamoured with Chris’s radiant and otherworldly sister Dottie (a virtuoso performance by Juno Temple), creating dangerous ripples in an already sadistic sea of peril and venality.

Equally compelling and revolting, Killer Joe is a skilfully sculpted tale of sleaze and corruption, an uncensored perusal through repellent characters and the games they play in America’s seedy underbelly. With material that could just as easily have formed the basis of another Coen brothers examination of the dark, diminutive and deadly games Americans play with one another – although they would have displayed a more tactful and imaginatively downbeat handling than Friedkin does here, the film nevertheless rarely succumbs to the predictability of Letts’s (and indeed the narrative’s) plot, with Friedkin successfully pushing it’s stage play confines in many squalid directions.

Helped by the director’s evidently knowledgeable visual abilities, wheedling a vivid colour scheme from the ostensibly dark setting, where dogs constantly bark and rain plummets down in an angry form of pathetic fallacy, the film captures the oafish qualities of the characters and their horrific scheme, cajoling blackly comic laughs out of the copious vulgarity on show. Maintaining a gritty and dynamic balance between sharply judged comedy and scenes of graphic brutality, Friedkin – perhaps one of the least subtle mainstream filmmakers – is rarely scuppered by the apparent lack of subtext within Letts’s story, instead running with its’ inherent shallowness, depicting this story of trailer park degradation and its morally repugnant denizens without attempting to dig any deeper than its shabby surfaces.

Readily displaying his penchant for teasing out horror and sadism from the most mundane of elements, taking everyday items and refitting them with a vicious edge, Friedkin does here with a simple piece of fried chicken what he did for pea soup and crucifixes in The Exorcist, absurdly utilising the greasy snack in the film’s most graphic and unnerving sequence (of which there are a handful), a closing act potboiler that shocks and thrills in equal measure. Although the climax reins the film back to its stage roots, a twenty-minute sequence set in the confined space of the family’s cluttered trailer, Killer Joe is a resourceful thriller that makes the most of its plethora of fine performances, only occasionally let down by an obligation to the blatancy of its source material.

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