This doesn’t feel like the work of a septuagenarian director, some four decades on from their Hollywood heyday. More like that of a debuting young buck creating as much sound and fury as they possibly can. William Friedkin, you certainly grabbed my attention and it’s nice to see you refusing to grow old gracefully.
The story surrounds a trailer trash family so dysfunctional that what most would consider horrors they see as commonplace. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) and his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) hatch a plot to bump off their respective mother/ex-wife in order to receive a life insurance pay out. They hire a hitman to do the deed, the eponymous Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey). When things don’t go to plan, Ansel’s 12-year-old daughter (Juno Temple) is drawn into the twisted web. The entire family then becomes compromised as they fall helplessly indebted to Joe.
Killer Joe is about as downright nasty as cinema gets. Some unspeakable acts are played out. For all its unrelenting vileness, it has some peculiar tonal shifts. Some of which I can only describe as fun. Its finale left me on a weird, slightly hysterical high.
Writer Tracy Letts adapted the screenplay from his own 1993 play. His wonderfully twisted imagination sees nothing as taboo and believably paints the abhorrent as day-to-day. It brings to mind the work of John Dahl, a director fond of hurling his characters (with few redeeming features) into increasingly hot water.
It’s a stellar cast. Emile Hirsch, as a young man so tortured that he yells his way through the entire film, is fantastically intense. Thomas Haden Church’s Ansel is so wonderfully moronic, if I hadn’t seen the likes of Sideways I’d assume he really was that dumb hick. Gina Gershon (although perhaps a little too good-looking for such a low-rent role) lends solid support as his none-too-supportive wife. Juno Temple does a fantastic job playing no less than eleven years her junior, thus proving herself a worthy recipient of this year’s BAFTA Rising Star Award. Matthew McConaughey is, in his own words, experiencing something of a “McConaissance” and its great to see him back. His portrayal of this stone killer took a bit of getting used to. Initially, I even considered the performance a bit duff but it’s appropriately otherworldly as a sociopath certainly should be.
This was never going to be an easy sell so hats off to William Friedkin for going in all guns blazing with no sign of caving in to studio meddling. Although it’s filmmaking on a smaller scale than the likes of say, The French Connection here the director delivers a similar uncompromising vision.