The latest collaboration between director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) and playwright Tracy Letts comes designed to get under the skin of the audience in much the same way their previous team-up, the terribly underrated Bug, did several years ago, but this time the results are a lot more darkly comedic and emotionally complex. Killer Joe re-establishes Friedkin as being one of the most consistently interesting American directors still working and Letts as a visionary storyteller capable of making even the sleaziest and skewed familial perspectives enthralling and compulsively believable, even when they team up to do everything in their power to try and make you look away. The film is daring in that it dares the audience to come down to its level and try to understand some of the most lecherous characters in recent history, and the end result is one of the most satisfying films of the year without question.
Young Dallas trailer trash Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) has made some bad decisions and now he finds himself into some decidedly rough characters for a large sum of money. Not the type of person to immediately man up and face responsibilities or a beating head on, he turns to his equally hard up pot head father Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church) and his step mother Sharla (Gina Gershon) to get them to agree to let him hire a hitman to kill his mother because of a large insurance policy payday that his mentally fragile and damaged younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) stands to be the sole beneficiary of. Enter the titular Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas detective who moonlights as a wetworker on the side, who balks at not being paid up front for his services until he sees Dottie and asks for her (forced) hand as a retainer until he gets paid.
The performances take center stage here despite the wonderful behind the camera work from Friedkin and Letts, with many of the cast members achieving new heights in their respective careers. As the chronic screw up Chris, Hirsch toes the fine line between petulant child and deeply concerned brother. When Joe starts getting closer and closer to Dottie and things start to get considerably sleazier between the two of them, one almost expects him to reach the point where he would willingly give his own life to get his sister out of this mess. Church puts in some fine work here as the genuinely sweet, but not too bright and still wholly complicit father figure, and Gershon does a nice variation on a woman constantly trying to crawl her way out of the trailer park only to be undone by her own ridiculous mistakes. Temple, with her almost doe-like eyes and awkwardly childish appearance, plays Dottie understandably as a complete space cadet, but also as the only wholly sympathetic figure in a film full of ne’er do wells.
But once again, just like in Soderbergh’s Magic Mike or Linklatter’s Bernie, Matthew McConaughey dominates every frame of film he’s in. Putting his Texan charms to their greasiest and darkest purposes yet, his Joe has a penchant for telling stories or puzzling things out aloud before snapping and doing something truly terrible. Providing a great deal of the darkness in an already coal black, but admittedly sometimes quite funny, comedy, Joe hangs over the Smith family like a venomous snake coiled around one of their tacky grease and tobacco stained light fixtures stalking and waiting for the right moment to strike. There’s something undeniably electric and off putting about Joe that makes McConaughey’s performance here that marks a definite career achievement.
Friedkin, as he usually does, shows himself to be a master of all things claustrophobic in nature. The actions of the characters take place in an extremely narrow and small field of vision of their own creation, and Friedkin uses his eye for composition and his ear for dialogue to take Letts’ story to an even smaller level than it probably played with on stage. Every character in Friedkin’s world inhabits their own uniquely distinct head space even when it seems like two people are on the exact same page. The film is made up of mostly long takes of people talking and trying to game or threaten each other in unadorned and unloved rooms whose sense of interior décor have never risen above the same level as the motivation of any of the members of the Smith family. It’s purposefully and calculatingly dull to the point of it becoming stylish. The characters fit the setting wonderfully.
The pacing of the film also moves quickly and efficiently, which is hard when dealing with a film this heavily based around dialogue that conveys to the audience just who these characters are. The almost uncanny sharing of minds that Letts and Friedkin seem to have synthesizes here quite wonderfully mostly just by Friedkin simply letting the story and its beats play out naturally instead of trying to force them into something far more grandiose. Letts has designed the film to be an exercise in escalation, leading to a conclusion that has already garnered considerable discussion in terms of its graphic content, and Friedkin directs the action like a car going over a cliff in the best possible way since crashing back down to Earth might be the only redemption these characters can ever hope to achieve.
Killer Joe certainly isn’t for those with weak constitutions, short attention spans, or the easily offended or triggered, but for those hardy souls who want to see a cinematic clinic in how misanthropy should be played on screen (and probably even on stage for that matter) it’s a must see in a year full of films too wishy-washy to recommend one way or the other. It can’t be recommended for everyone, but for those who know what they’re getting into and who can easily plunge themselves into the lives of some truly twisted people, it couldn’t be recommended more strongly.