Killer Joe, William Friedkin’s dark & savage return to the macabre is as unapologetically explicit and direct as its title. It’s a familiar story of greed, money and murder, but Friedkin’s direction of Tracy Lett’s source material fully realises and translates the unrelenting depravity in to a powerful visual performance.
At its core, the film is inherently rotten, with no character or motivation unsullied by some sort of perversion or malicious intent. Indebted son, Chris (Emile Hirsch) decides to place a hit on his mother to collect on her life insurance and sets the plan in motion with the blessing of his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), his step-mother Sharia (Gina Gershon) and his pre-teen sister Dottie (Juno Temple). The contract is awarded to corrupt detective, Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who demands the virginity of young Dottie as a retainer.
With such an unashamedly sordid narrative, the film runs the risk of being too unrelenting and suffocating within its strait-jacket of degeneracy and so adopts a degree of surreality. Think of the random fictionalisations that peppered Natural Born Killers, a film that was equally as unbalanced, but injected humour and a freshness through the sitcom style interludes and cartoonish dreamscapes. Killer Joe is much more subtle in its eccentricities, and instead the film closely resembles a soap opera. There are no overt flights of fantasy, but instead the film occupies a world that teeters on the edge of unreality, as the family return to a weird unquestioning acceptance of the situation, and domestic banality continues uninterrupted around the pedophiliac activities of the serial killer in the heart of their home.
The film walks this line so perfectly that you feel as if your personal morality is being teased and mocked as you attempt to adjust to (and justify) the situation in the same way as the fictional family. Thomas Hayden Church’s slow-witted Ansel is the perfect anchor in this twisted tale, and therefore the main offender in producing this peculiar air of serenity while Emile Hirsch is the perfect foil for his father.
In the opening minutes of the film, Chris comes face to face with his step-mothers naked vagina, a fact that bothers only him, but these few seconds (and the ensuing argument) seems to reflect the film as a whole as we are presented with, and forced to accept, a number of unpleasant elements that masquerade as ‘normality’. It’s hard not to draw some similarities with Friedkin’s classic The Exorcist, but the horror film played out in much the same way, except the actions of Reagan are justified as being influenced by the paranormal, rather than the surreality of Killer Joe. Hirsch however does give us a convincing lifeline for our own sanity in this mess, as Chris becomes more unhappy with the situation and tries to right it, his actions resemble those of a rational man, and we begin to see cracks in the freakish facade.
It’s McConaughey’s unlikely performance as Killer Joe that really makes it. Although he spends much of the film delivering cold, hard lines with a restrained masterly air, he has the ability to switch between ruthless murderer and snake charmer effectively, and occasionally, within the same scene. His final moments at the end of the film will be remembered for a long time as his abilities collide with Friedkin’s stylistic direction to create an emotionally explosive climax that should be cathartic for the audience, but instead will knock you back in to the strange alternate reality from earlier.
Killer Joe is a hard film to pin down but to say that Friedkin may have delivered his second, contemporary Exorcist may give you an idea. They are both unflinching in their presentation of the horrific narrative, but as mentioned earlier, Killer Joe remains a tense and restrained drama without the screams, blood and devilry of The Exorcist. It’s a film we should have seen before, it should really be unremarkable but with Friedkin’s stamp all over it, it has been expertly elevated above similar works. It’s not a groundbreaking film, but interesting and original enough to entertain those who enjoy a certain degree of darkness in their films. However be warned, just as Friedkin gave us the legendary crotch-stabbing scene in The Exorcist, so Killer Joe delivers a scene with fried chicken that will also be making top-ten lists for decades to come.