William Friedkin has had an odd career thus far. He directed acclaimed classics such as The Exorcist and The French Connection, picking up an Academy Award for latter, which would have led many to assume he would continue knocking out major pictures such as these. However, have a quick glance over his filmography since then and it’s littered with rather underwhelming films that you’d do well to even recall the name of. Killer Joe is Friedkin’s first release since 2006’s Bug and is probably his most commercial film in over a decade.
Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a down-‘n’-out drug dealer who owes a lot of money. With time running out to repay he concocts a scheme to have his mother killed and collect on the life insurance. Enter Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a corrupt police officer who moonlights as a killer for hire, whom Chris enlists to help off his dear ol’ ma. However, when Joe takes a liking to Chris’s younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple), the whole situation becomes an even more twisted nightmare.
The tone for Killer Joe set is from the off as Chris’s step-mother Sharla (Gina Gershon) opens the door to their trailer with absolutely nothing on her bottom half, her excuse being “I didn’t know it was going to be you”. From that point on, the film doesn’t pull any punches and is drenched in the kind of depravity and filth that would normally have many turning off. Instead, there’s something fascinating about this family and their warped world that challenges you to keep watching more than it invites you to turn away.
It really isn’t an easy watch by any means and there are instances that make your skin crawl. Joe’s lust for the clearly mentally inept and indeterminably aged Dottie is hugely creepy, whilst the infamous fried chicken scene is nothing short of fucked up. It really does need to be seen to be believed. In fact, this is the only scene where Killer Joe actually feels maybe a little too gratuitous for the sake of gratuity, although its dark (dark as in black as the night) humour just about saves it from crossing that line. And it’s this humour that is the film’s most important element. Without it, it would be too dark, too twisted to really work, but instead it wears its sadism with a wry smile that lightens the mood just enough.
Killer Joe is a somewhat claustrophobic film and, as such, it’s important that performances are strong, and they generally are. Emile Hirsch is decent without ever being spectacular, whilst both Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon are entertaining as Chris deadbeat father and step mother respectively. Juno Temple is brilliantly naive and disturbing as Dottie, but it’s Matthew McConaughey who absolutely steals the show and continues his successful ‘McConnaissance’ (a phrase stolen from whichever genius thought it up). McConaughey is downright creepy and sadistic as Joe, but he plays it so well that you can’t help but somehow be drawn to him, very much as everyone else in the film is.
Killer Joe isn’t a film to settle down with for some light-hearted viewing. It’s depraved and backward, right down to its no doubt divisive conclusion, but it’s this very depravity that is much of its attraction. It never allows you to feel truly comfortable, largely thanks to Friedkin’s direction and McConaughey’s performance, but it’s a mesmerising snapshot of a family dynamic you pray to God doesn’t exist in real life.