Killer Joe

Forty years ago, William Friedkin was at the vanguard of a new wave of young filmmakers that revitalised Hollywood; the hotshot director who followed The French Connection with the blockbuster horror The Exorcist. Having tried his hand at just about every genre of film, after 1985s cop conspiracy To Live and Die in LA, Friedkin was a spent creative force. His career went off a cliff in slow-motion, with the Oscar-winner reduced to making low-rent television movies and pilots for series that didn’t make it to air. When he did make films, they were ridiculed (1995s erotic thriller Jade) or poorly distributed (2003s action movie The Hunted).

They say there are no second acts in American lives, but at 76, Friedkin is enjoying a late-career run of something approaching his old form. Reunited with the playwright Tracy Letts, who wrote his last film, the needless to say little-seen 2006 psychological thriller Bug, Killer Joe is a deep-fried Southern redneck noir that feels like the work of a director half his age. A bleakly comic story of murder, duplicity and sexual exploitation, Friedkin’s film fizzes with scuzzy, fidgety energy until a fatally overcooked finale undermines everything that has gone before.

Skipping though the potholed puddles in a torrential downpour, ragged drug-dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) turns up unannounced at mobile home where his dim-bulb father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) lives with his slatternly stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) and his virginal teenage sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Repeated cutaways to a vicious pit-bull snarling and pulling on its chain remind us that this is a dog-eat-dog world, and someone is going to get devoured. Chris is desperate for money to settle a debt with a local drug lord, who is threatening to kill him, and so proposes a Double Indemnity plan in which they kill his unseen mother, Ansel’s first wife, collect her $50,000 insurance payout and split it among themselves.

Reluctant to do any killing themselves, Chris tells his father about a police detective who has a lucrative sideline as a contract killer. Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), is an ice-cold, Stetson-wearing assassin who is totally bad and quite possibly mad. With everyone agreed on the course of action, and already counting their share of the loot, the plan hits a snag when Chris is unable to come up with the hefty deposit for Joe’s unique services. Looking around the trailer and not seeing much in the way of collateral, Joe’s cold eye falls on the innocent Dottie, a child-woman who speaks in drawled nursery rhymes and sleeps surrounded by teddy bears. The deal is quickly sealed, but can Joe get the job done before the family tears itself apart?

Letts, who won a Pulitzer for his latest play, August: Osage County, has an aficionado’s understanding of disreputable genre cinema and a finely-tuned ear for how people talk to one another. Both Bug and Killer Joe are adapted from stage plays and although Friedkin does his best to open out the story, trailing his characters along endless strip-malls and through neon-lit strip-clubs, something of the story’s three-walled, stage-bound sensibility lingers. He has cast the story well, finding actors who can convincingly transform themselves into trailer-trash caricatures and giving McConaughey his best role in a decade.

But if you make a film about essentially nasty people, you risk making a nasty film. Friedkin, by turns amused and revolted by his characters sleazy shenanigans, is uncompromising in depicting the violence, abuse and degradation they endure. Where he errs is in making that violence the film’s sole reason for being. In its closing stages, Killer Joe becomes an unapologetic wallow in the mire, with a final scene so repugnant that the black comedy stops being comic and the film is just black, full stop.


Andrea Ostrov Letania said...

"After trying his hand at just about every genre of film, by 1985s cop conspiracy To Live and Die in LA, Friedkin was a spent creative force."

I strongly disagree. TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA is, I think, his greatest film. It's too bad it wasn't a hit.

John Maguire said...

You're quite right about To Live & Die In LA, Andrea. I meant "after", not "by" and have amended the text