Matthew McConaughey finds his dark side in William Friedkin's pitch black southern-fried comedy.
What begins as a merry, Jim Thompsony crime caper in which a harebrained get-rich-quick scheme falls apart just as swiftly and shambolically as it was devised, soon devolves into a hellish comedy of sustained sexual humiliation that plumbs Salo-esque levels of physical and psychological depravity.
As with Friedkin’s underrated Bug, this is a vivacious adaptation of a play by Tracy Letts. Yet again, it takes the form of one long, inexorable crescendo fuelled by the naive willingness of a group of people to accept a dangerous stranger into their lives.
The repellant trailer-trash Smith clan is comprised of drunken hick Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church), his slutty pizza chef wife Sharla (Gina Gershon), their wild, incestuously-inclined son from his first marriage, Chris (Emile Hirsch), and their half-witted baby doll daughter, Dottie (Juno Temple).
When Chris decides that he wants to kill his real mother to secure a massive life insurance dividend, he and Ansel enlist the help of Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a rogue lawman and freelance assassin. Though unable to offer a downpayment for his death-giving services, the pair allow him temporary no-holds-barred access to Dottie, with whom he is instantly enraptured. If payment is never received, Joe gets to take Dottie away with him.
Bolstering, rather than – as you might expect – softening the film’s absurdly extreme denouement is McConaughey, who manages to locate the inner sadist within the hemp-'n'-hackysack Southern yo-yo which has become his rote screen persona.
With his all-black attire, devilish charm and violent insistence on keeping to the rules of the game, Killer Joe recalls Dennis Potter’s 'Brimstone and Treacle' in both structure and the central notion of a mysterious stranger whose intellectual superiority allows him to irrevocably alter the lives of a poor, uncultured and thoroughly poisonous family unit.
Friedkin is currently 76-years-old, and as with films like Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass (made at age 87), Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme (made at age 79) and Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica (made at age 100), Killer Joe demonstrates all the vitality and caustic humour of a hot-shit newbie who’s straight out of film school.
As close to the marrow as this film gets, it’s difficult not to read as teasing provocation, mainly down to the hoped-up performances, the sun-bleached colour palette and a profusion of surreal, knockabout humour and deviant sexual shenanigans.
One might even see Killer Joe as a raucous satire on humid, Tennessee Williams-style Southern psychodramas, when instead of the wailing heroine getting carted off to the nuthatch, she’s, well... no, it’s probably best not to say. You have to ask: is it possible to take a film seriously in which one of the leads is beaten half to death with a can of pumpkin puree?
One of the leading lights of ’70s Hollywood is hardly what you’d call a safe pair of hands these days.
If you’re genuinely sickened by this film, your funny bone needs replacing.
Lovely to see Friedkin on such mischievous form and McConaughey finally revealing his dark side.