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Killer Joe’s US movie poster features a bloodied piece of fried chicken. This probably tells you all you need to know about what to expect from the latest piece by William Friedkin (director; The Exorcist, The French Connection). Based on Tracey Letts’ play and screen adaptation and exploring the seedy underbelly of American society, this film does not disappoint.
The Smith family are archetypal trailer-trash, bit parts straight from an episode of My Name is Earl or Eastbound and Down. The best thing that can be said about father Ansel Smith (Thomas Haden Church) is that he knows he is stupid. Gina Gershon is masterfully cast as his second wife Sharla, as feisty as she’s slutty, and no fan of Ansel’s hapless son Chris from a previous marriage. Juno Temple plays Chris’ younger sibling Dottie. They concoct a plan to pay off debts owed by the hapless loser Chris to a local loan shark, by arranging for “Killer Joe” to rub out Chris’ mother Adele. Chris plans to collect her life insurance in Dottie’s name. Matthew McConaughey is counter-intuitively cast as Joe, a local policeman who moonlights as an assassin.
Surprisingly, McConaughey doesn’t disappoint and manages to step outside of his typical Rom Com repertoire to play the title role memorably, one part smooth-talking gigolo-cum-southern gentleman, the other part malevolent predator.
Of course, in true film-noir style the plan goes very wrong, and we see the family twist and swing, throttled by the Gordian knot of their situation as it worsens each time they try to fix it once and for all. It’s very enjoyable to watch, and tension builds to a climactic final scene where we learn exactly how sadistic and evil Joe really is. Violence is unflinching but interspersed with humour, and characters turn on a dime, one moment charismatic, the next skin-crawlingly vile. Friedkin, who I was fortunate enough to hear in Q&A after the premiere, has said that his work is about the thin line between good and evil in us all. It’s a theme the film forces us to reflect upon.
His examination of the subaltern world of the South-Western United States, where even policemen are crooked and feared, suits the director’s tonal nod to Grindhouse cinema. In fact several scenes seem to have come with specific acting direction towards that genre.
Indeed, Kurt Russell’s unexpectedly good turn in Tarantino’s Grindhouse homage “Death Proof” is reminiscent of McConaughey’s role here as the eponymous Joe. Friedkin has really managed to bring something new out of the actor, and he is fun to watch.
The rest of the cast fits snugly into this hybrid noir-trash flick genre, especially the feral Emil Hirsch as Chris (worth checking out in “Into the Wild”). Relative newcomer Juno Temple (soon to be seen in “The Dark Knight Rises”) portrays Dottie superbly, Lolita-like in her innocence and subversive sexual power. It is Dottie’s control over Joe that is the lynchpin of the plot and as such Temple carries a heavy weight on her shoulders. She acquits herself fully.
Richly deserving of its NC-17 rating in the US, Friedkin’s oddball approach to directing will be called violent and misogynist by his critics. I’ll leave that to the reader to decide, but he has managed to imbue inanimate objects (a tin of pineapple chunks, a fried chicken-leg, a watch carefully removed and laid on a table as foreplay to brutality) with trauma in such a way that the viewer can’t fail to be reminded of the roles they play in this film long, after they have left the cinema. This is part of what makes Killer Joe refreshing. I’m sure I’ll be watching it again soon.
KILLER JOE played Venice, Toronto and Sitges 2011, and SXSW 2012. It opens this weekend in the UK, and on July 27th in the USA. It opens on August 10th in Finland; August 23rd in Russia; September 5th in France; September 26th in Belgium; and in the Netherlands on November 8th.