William Friedkin is in my opinion one of the greatest film directors of all time. He has brought us The Exorcist and The French Connection, and although his other, lesser known works haven’t been of such great overall standard, his films are always interesting studies of human nature and people’s capacity to be taken over by evil.
Killer Joe, written by Tracey Letts, adapted from his own play, is one of Friedkin’s most exciting works to date. It isn’t as good as The Exorcist (it’s hard to find a film that is) but it does contains a sense of twisted beauty evocative of that 1973 film. The story is a simple one. A young man (Emile Hirsch), his father (Thomas Haden Church), and his father’s second wife (Gina Gershon) plan to kill the young man’s mother. They want her life insurance. Debts could be paid off, people would be happier; they find it hard to find a reason not to go through with it. They don’t fancy killing the woman themselves, so their hire Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a contract killer and police officer, to do the work.
Things start to get very dark indeed when Joe fails to get all of his fee at the appointed time. To cover the debts temporarily, he takes ownership of the teenage daughter of the family (Juno Temple). His sexual relationship with her treads along the fine line between consensual activity and coercion.
Although his CV is littered with dire romantic comedies that are about as funny as dental surgery, Matthew McConaughey has, in recent years, been more daring and inspired with his acting choices. His role as Killer Joe is reminiscent of his turn in The Lincoln Lawyer, although of course the character is very much a villain rather than the hero.
The performances from Hirsch, Haden Church and Temple are all mesmerising, but it is Gershon that really stands out. Her ability to switch from viciously manipulative to painfully vulnerable is astonishing.
Although there are some notable Friedkin traits all of the way through – especially the way the characters are filmed in situations which depict both sides to them; good and evil – the film generally feels like a rather normal, if slightly unsettling, crime thriller for most of its running time. But everything that takes place leads up to a devastating extended final scene that is masterfully engineered to creep up on the audience.
I won’t say too much about this scene, as much of its power comes from the surprise, but let’s just say that I doubt anyone will be running out to buy some fried chicken after leaving the cinema. Yes, I know that sounds utterly bizarre. No, I’m not going to explain why.
The closing moments of the movie offer up a crescendo of cruelty, depicting levels of nastiness and stomach-churning unease that even the most gory of torture flicks couldn’t match. The horror of the film comes from what the characters do to each other and, perhaps more importantly, what they do not do.
Some audience members won’t want to endure the things this film asks of them. There is a sadistic slant to the violence that some may find distasteful, and although I didn’t find the film to be guilty of misogyny, I can understand why some may chose to view it that way. Killer Joe is a furiously brilliant, astute and hypnotic film. It succeeded in achieving the exhilarating rush of emotion good cinema should evoke in its viewers. There’s nothing quite like it in the cinemas at the moment, and I doubt 2012 will offer us another film quite as strange and memorable.
Killer Joe (2011), directed by William Friedkin, is distributed in the UK by Entertainment One, Certificate 18. Prospective viewers may wish to read more about the content of the film at www.bbfc.co.uk.