by James Conway
A review of director William Friedkin’s latest film.
It’s fair to say that the proud people of Texas have a rather large bone to pick with the smug glitterati of Hollywood. Over the years, the Lone Star State has been portrayed as a simmering, sandblasted hellhole, populated by violent, alcoholic, racist Cowboys who don’t take too kindly to strangers so many times that the stereotype has been firmly lodged in our collective consciousness.
Unfortunately those hoping for a break from convention in ‘Killer Joe’, the new film from ‘The Exorcist’ Director William Friedkin will be left disappointed, for as the saying goes; don’t mess with Texas.
Adapted from a play by Tracey Letts, who also wrote the screenplay, Killer Joe chronicles the plight of conniving drug dealer Chris who is left high and dry when his poor excuse for a mother steals his stash, leaving him $6,000 in debt to the local shitkickers who not unreasonably threaten to make life very unpleasant for him if he doesn’t pay up. Chris, played with weasel-like panache by Emile Hirsch, enlists the help of his dimwit Father Ansel (divorced) and the two bemoan their plight at the local strip club until Chris alights on the perfect plan; bump off Mummy dearest and reap the dividends of her $50,000 life insurance policy. The only question is who will do the dirty deed?
Enter the titular character. A local detective with a lucrative sideline in contract killing, Matthew McConaughey imbues the role of Joe with a cold, calculating menace, a badass who cruises round in an unmarked car, clad in dark clothes, aviators and obligatory Stetson. Joe at first flat-out refuses to take the contract as Lowlifes Junior and Senior cannot pay up front while Mother still draws breath. However, that is until his wandering reptilian eyes first crawl over Chris’s sweet, spaced out younger sister Dottie…
From then on, the stage is set for a whole lot of unpleasantness to go down. This has to be one of the most morality-free flicks of recent years; every character is an utter scumbag who thoroughly deserves every hardship they have to face, with the possible exception of Dottie, who despite being the pawn in an exceedingly nasty game is an enthusiastic supporter of her brother’s plan, and an all-to-eager supplicant to Joe’s lecherous advances.
Juno Temple’s multi-layered portrayal is a testament to her growing skill as an actress and she is easily the most fascinating character on screen, despite a strong supporting cast including Thomas Haden Church as the wonderfully deadpan and utterly stupid Ansel, whose bewilderment at life in general allows him to follow his reckless son into the heart of darkness all to eagerly.
It’s also refreshing to see McConaughey once again prove that despite all the awful rom-coms, he isn’t an actor to be written off. Behind Joe’s impeccable Southern manners and impassive facade beats the heart of a pure psychopath, a terrifying whirlwind of fury who explodes during the coruscating finale as events descend into the realms of the Grand Guignol. Anyone wondering why the movie poster features a piece of Southern Fried Chicken as its centrepiece would do well to remember a certain other Friedkin film that featured appalling things being performed with the aid of an inanimate object. If you could stomach his wares before, there’s a strong chance you won’t be paying any visits to a Colonel Sanders restaurant for a long time afterwards.
Killer Joe revels in its origins as a theatre production; several events take place off-screen and the dialogue is stretched taut with repetition as characters muse on their bad luck and argue over semantics. However, the alleged spirit of Texas is thrust in our faces throughout via the colourful cinematography; best expressed in the downbeat gaudiness of the trailer parks where the inhabitants serve their time.
Not so much Southern Gothic as Texas Trash, Killer Joe is a repugnant look at what human cockroaches actually get up to when they crawl in the dirt. Anyone looking for a hero to root for or minus a strong stomach will be left wanting. But if you’re one of those who thrive on schadenfreude, mark Killer Joe as next on your hit-list.