Some directors mellow in their old age; not so William Friedkin, as his grisly and grimy take on Tracy Letts’ grand slice of southern gothic Guignol shows.
Friedkin’s controversy-baiting style has won him an army of devotees and led to a back catalogue that many filmmakers would sell their soul for. The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) have rightly earned their place in cinema’s Valhalla, while pictures like Sorcerer (1977), Cruising (1980) and To Live And Die In LA (1985) may be lesser known, but are equally absorbing.
He made a welcome return to horror in his disturbing 2007 adaptation of Letts’ suffocating play Bug and collaborated again with the celebrated playwright four years later for what, according to the poster, is “a totally twisted deep fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story”.
The film centres around the Smith clan, a less-than-functional trailer trash brood who make the family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look sweet in comparison. Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a drug dealer who’s got himself into debt with the wrong people and, with the help of his simple-minded dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), makes a pact with the devil in the shape of Mephistophelean hitman-cop Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to murder his mother and collect on the life insurance.
Chris is unable to provide a down-payment to the dark and mysterious Joe, who decides instead to take a retainer in the form of Chris’ childlike sister Dottie (Juno Temple) until the cash is forthcoming.
Friedkin has never been one to shy away from down and dirty filmmaking and is at his most gleefully scuzzy here in what’s effectively a good old-fashioned exploitation B-movie. There’s something of the 1980s here, especially in the montage of close-ups as we’re introduced to Joe, who’s such a badass even the chained-up psycho dog sat outside the family trailer goes quiet when he strolls past.
Furthermore, a pretty good clue of what to expect comes early on when the first sign we get of Chris’ loathsome stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) is of her naked from the waist down. Subtle it ain’t.
The film’s blackly comic tone adds fuel to the argument that Friedkin is mocking the characters; the only one who seems remotely redeemable is Dottie, although you’re left with the sneaking suspicion she knows more than she’s letting on.
Killer Joe has been likened to a fairytale, with Dottie as the princess looking for her Prince Charming and Joe the wolf at the door, yet no-one emerges from this particular tale with a happy ending. The Smiths’ murderous greed and back-stabbing comes back to bite them hard as the evil they’ve invited into their home arrives for its pound of flesh in the film’s closing scenes, most notoriously involving a fried chicken drumstick.
The film is held together by McConaughey’s shark-eyed turn as Joe, who glides around like some Stetson-wearing angel of death and remains unnervingly calm until his thirst for violence takes over.
Killer Joe certainly isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but for those who enjoy their movies trashy it’s finger lickin’ good.
I LOVED this movie!! Excellent work!!
I thought you might!
A balls-to-the-walls bit of filmmaking by Friedkin. I saw this first-run in a theater mixed with young and old alike. There were gasps and laughter in the hall (mine included). Entertaining as hell, as well as jaw-dropping. McConaughey channeling Robert Mitchum in a performance that should have garnered actor nods (but one you know the vaunted Academy wouldn’t have the nerve to even mention). Fine review.
I bet there were a few gasps and chuckles during the chicken scene! That’s a good point about Mitchum. I can see Cape Fear and Night of the Hunter in it. Thanks very much my friend.
Lol, “finger-licking good” nice reference ;). This movie is alright, McConaughey definitely steals the show, and I’m also a huge fan of Hirsch, so I was pleased to see him here. Excellent post :).
I liked it! Thanks Joseph. McConaughey is just The Man at the moment.
I like McConaughey. A ton.
The movie. Not so much. Guess I’m one of the folks for whose tastes this isn’t. 🙂
Fair dues. I can completely see that viewpoint.
This movie’s crazy, but in a good way. Also, it proves to be McConaughey’s best performance to-date. Screw you, Dallas Buyers Club! Good review.
Ha ha. It could well be Dan. He does quiet evil really well.
I love this movie, it’s just bonkers right from the start. Count me as another who thinks this is his McConaughey’s best performance (but I haven’t seen DBC, yet). I think it’s Gershon’s best work, too.
Bonkers is about as apt a word as you can use I think! I want the McConaissance to go on forever.
Ive been meaning to watch this as it seems weird enough for my tastes. Also I’m a fan of Friedkin especially ‘To live and die in L.A’. great review mate
If you’re a Friedkin fan you’ll love this. Thanks for the kind words buddy.
I was really impressed with this. I didn’t know Friedkin’s passions still burned so fiercely but they clearly do. And here’s another example of Matthew McConaughey’s recent strength and diversity as an actor – terrific stuff! This one surprised me A LOT – but in a good way!
It’s a bunch of fun no doubt about that. It’s totally unapologetic which is what I love about both the film and Friedkin as a director. As for McConaughey, well, the guy is absolutely on fire at the moment.
Very true. There’s a few films from his past that I really like – Frailty and EdTv spring to mind but his recent output has been incredible.
Killer Joe may be uncomfortable to watch at times, but it’s worth it. A brave, bold and intense film helped with a great cast, and a career turn for McConaughey. Glad you liked it!
Absolutely right. You’ve gotta admire the fact that cast and director are willing to go the whole hog and not chicken (ahem) out.
Great review. Thanks for reminding me that I have to watch this film.
You’re welcome! Hope you get chance to review it yourself.
Hi Mark! I’m not big on disturbing movies and this one sounds like it’s right up there so it’s a skip for me. Friedkin’s most famous work The Exorcist still traumatized me to this day, though from his interview I heard on NPR, he seems like a really nice, normal guy.
Every time I hear Friedkin I have more respect for him. He’s the real deal as far as I’m concerned and Killer Joe cements that.
This movie had an abundance of awkward in it! Great review!
“An abundance of awkward”. I like that!
Hahahaha, I cringe when I see KFC sometimes hahaha!
Can’t wait to see this movie. I’m ashamed that I’ve missed out on a Friedkin film. I loved “Bug.” Good job once again!
Thanks Vic! If you love Bug I’d say it’s safe to say you’ll love this.
Speaking of which, I just found my copy of BUG to watch this weekend, thanks to you!
Ha ha. Glad to be of service!
Interesting review man, I have more reason to watch Killer Joe now since the McConaissance is now in full swing!!!! 😀 I’ve heard mixed things about this one, but you make it sound like quite a good time. It sounds kinda up my alley. And because i also didn’t know William Friedkin directed it, add it to the list of reasons why I’m about to check it out!
He’s in fire mate. It’s the sort of movie you just need to give in to and let it take you for a down and dirty ride on Hillbilly Street! Check it out and come back to me when you have.
Great review sir – it’s one of the few McConaughey films I haven’t seen so I’ve been reading a little about it. It sounds like it’d be right up my alley, and I enjoyed reading your thoughts. I think I’m going to head out and rent it, despite never really being a fan of Emile Hirsch. Look forward to reading your blog!
Thank you very much James. It’s down and dirty and wallows in it. I got a real kick out of it. I know what you mean by Hirsch, but he’s surrounded by enough quality to make him raise his game. Hope you like it!
Great work here, Mark. I thought this was fantastic. Too grim and sleazy for some but that kinda stuff is right up my street.
Same here Mark. I love me a bit of grungy grindhouse and this was just the ticket!