William Friedkin returns to direct another day with this adaptation of Tracy Letts’ brutal play about a Detective who moonlights as a contract killer (his previous film Bug was also written by Letts.) Coming into the film not knowing much at first glance I wasn’t sure whether to expect a comedy or thriller or just how intense the film would prove to be, but it wasn’t long before those questions were answered. Pretty soon the the film gets underway apace with a memorable opening scene featuring some in-your-face nudity (quite literally, I might add) and then we are underway. Chris (Emile Hirsch) has been kicked out of his biological Mother’s place after an argument and has come to stay with his Father along his Father’s wife and Sister Dottie. After an extended argument over letting him stay the night, Chris and his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) head to a secluded location for a discussion. Turns out Chris knows of a cop named ‘Killer’ Joe Cooper who is also a part-time hitman. They both hatch a plan to hire Joe to kill Chris’s Mother so they can cash in her insurance policy. The one problem is they don’t have the money to hire him and Chris desperately needs the insurance money to pay off some loan sharks from whom he borrowed money for his gambling habit. Without the payment up front, Joe agrees to take a retainer, which just happens will be Chris Sister, Lottie (Juno Temple) and with this setup in place that’s when it all begins to get interesting.
As I got more into the film I didn’t find much to laugh at, the atmosphere is incredibly dark and at times makes it very uncomfortable to watch to the point that the tension in the final scenes makes it very hard to sit through. The audience I was with clearly had the right sense of humour for Killer Joe as they laughed a great deal more than I did, so this is obviously a film that will not appeal to everybody. I saw a number of parallels with the early Coen Brothers film Blood Simple which was an equally dark comedic film and set in America’s south and so fans of that style may be the target audience for this movie.
Remarkably it is William Friedkin who leads this journey; he has never been a film maker to make his viewers feel at ease and he continues that trend here. There are parallels too with Friedkin’s 1987 serial killer flick Rampage and he handles the story in Killer Joe with the same kind of energy and he does not once shy away from the violence regardless of male or female characters being involved. Friedkin has a track record of making the violence funny at times but also uses that trick to relax his audience before changing the tone quickly to really up the shock value.
Killer Joe is intense film making at its best, it never lets up its relentless pace. Performance wise, Juno Temple is wonderful as the simple Dottie and in one standout scene where Chris may or may not be dreaming in a very David Lynch-esque sequence, slow transitions are employed in the editing to make Dottie appear to be moving across the room unnaturally. It’s a hard scene to describe in writing, but Temple’s physical performance steals the piece, creating a wonderfully unnerving scene. All the supporting cast make the most of their time too, Gina Gershon plays a wonderful character and in the film’s final act we feel truly sorry for her in a deeply unsettling scene. What’s starts as a calm civilised dinner scene that soon descends into chaos that truly will make audiences shift uncomfortably in their seats. It bears saying that some people will have difficulty sitting through this in the same way the stageplay created shock in it’s live audiences. It’s black atmosphere is truly captured on the film and is worth persevering with for a rewarding, if disconcerting experience.
Worth stating too is that Matthew McConaughey who in his career has failed to turn in any hugely impressive performances pulls out all the stops here, with his efficient, charming, cold, brutal and totally menacing performance as Jow. When he seduces poor Dottie you believe it. When he threatens someone you believe it, when he subjects poor Gina Gershon’s character to some sexual humiliation you believe it and you really end up feeling for her. I would easily say this performance will open some doors up for him and could even lead to some awards.
So Killer Joe, it’s got tons of dark humour (albeit humour that will not be universally appealing), a compelling script, great performances, and some scenes that will really make the audience gasp. A bold film from a 76 year old director who still shows that he can make something sharp, funny and shocking while those of a similar age would more than likely shy away from such material.