William Friedkin is a name you know, but not one you hear much about these days. The “French Connection” and “The Exorcist” director hasn’t delivered anything of that quality since those days in the ’70s, but he shows he’s still a skilled and relevant filmmaker with his film version of the Tracy Letts play “Killer Joe.”
Slapped with an NC-17 for its theatrical run, “Killer Joe” is needless to say one of the darkest and definitely the most perverted film of 2012. There’s no question of Letts’ deliberate attempt to get under your skin and make you feel uncomfortable for even thinking about laughing, and Friedkin adds a dark and deeply engrossing ominous tone to the proceedings.
The concept is simple almost Coen Brothers-esque stuff in that a small-time Texas family steps into morally blind territory when its members conspire to murder the mother/ex-wife and hire a detective who moonlights as a hit-man named Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to handle the dirty business. Chris (Emile Hirsch) is the son, a drug dealer who has run into debt trouble with his supplier and in need of lots of cash when he learns his mother’s life insurance is valued at $50,000 and it would all fall to his younger sister, Dottie (Juno Temple).
Dottie’s okay with the idea of murder, as is their father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and his current wife Sharla (Gina Gershon), but when Joe asks for the money up front and they can’t deliver, he determines the only way he’ll agree to do the job is if he’s given Dottie as a retainer.
McConaughey, who has had a huge year in independent film, is mesmerizing as Joe, a careful man who is all about common courtesy and keeping things under control, but has deep- seated sexual perversions. He’s a perfect character for McConaughey to experiment with in that he requires an actor with distinctive coolness and charisma to spare (McConaughey to a T), but the actor excels in twisting him into a dark creature who in spite of his demeanor is completely unpredictable because we know he’s capable of dark things.
He doesn’t steal “Killer Joe,” however, as Temple delivers a complex performance as Dottie, who’s innocent but not stupid. She’s constantly being manipulated by her brother, father and step-mother, but she’s not a pushover either. Despite being a victim of the story early on, she never comes across as helpless and Temple gives her that persistent degree of strength and confidence in what’s a very exposed role.
Even if you didn’t know the film was based on a play, it has that distinct stage drama feel. There are characters central to the plot whom we basically never see and there are some lengthy scenes that put Letts’ writing in the spotlight. The dialogue is straightforward, gripping and clever. Whereas many thrillers are driven by mystery or plot complexity, “Killer Joe” is all tension and it culminates in a riveting and unforgettable final scene.
Despite the stage origins, “Killer Joe” works as a piece of cinema thanks to Friedkin’s hand. There’s ample use of symbolism and setting the stage (figuratively) in terms of tone. You have a sixth sense about what kind of a scene you’re going to get (really dark, more comedic, or both) before the scene truly even begins. And as the director of “The Exorcist,” you bet he knows how to milk the suspense.
“Killer Joe” will come off to many as salacious and prurient, or at the very least sick and twisted, and perhaps some of the bolder choices in this regard have no reasonable justification, but the story is actually a study of our darker inclinations. The Smith family sets a foot into that dark pond with its decision to have the mother killed, unaware of the beast they’ve let into their lives. From then on it becomes about who wields power and influence, be it sexual or not, and when we choose to embrace or permit deviance — and yield to that dark power.
Directed by William Friedkin
Written by Tracy Letts
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Matthew McConaughey, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church