Chris (Hirsch) is a trailer-trash drug dealer whose own mother has stolen his stash, leaving him deeply in hock to some very bad men. Along with his sad-sack father Ansel (Haden-Church), Chris hatches a scheme to have his mother, and Ansel’s ex-wife, murdered. The brilliant plan is to claim a slice of the life insurance policy of which his sister Dottie (Temple) is the beneficiary. Neither of these men has the guts to pull this off themselves, but Chris has heard about a cop who moonlights as a hired killer.
The killer for hire, Joe Cooper (McConaughey), meets with the pair. When they cannot afford to pay his fee upfront it looks as though Joe is about to vanish from their lives, but for the fact that Dottie has caught his eye. Joe suggests the girl be a “retainer” for his services. That he is essentially asking for Dottie (who has obvious mental health issues) to be prostituted is something that neither her father, brother or sleazy mother-in-law (Gershon) lose a minute's sleep over. With Chris’s drug money situation growing ever more precarious, he wants Joe to do the deed fast. But the detective has his own agenda, embarking on a slow and deeply creepy courtship of the etherial Dottie while slowly setting up the killing.
Killer Joe is pickled in bourbon and malice. Every other year a film comes along that is hailed or condemned for pushing the boundaries of misogyny and screen violence – most recently, there was Michael Winterbottom’s film of pulp writer Jim Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me. Which is fitting, because Thompson’s hard-boiled fiction is one of the obvious influences on Tracey Letts’ screenplay for Killer Joe, which he has adapted from his own 1993 play. The explicit sexual sadism of Winterbottom’s film is certainly present here (and then some), but Letts’s script also has the dark wit and humour of the Coen brother’s neo-noir debut Blood Simple. In fact, the film is often extremely funny, particularly Gina Gershon and Thomas Haden-Church’s characters who get most of the best lines. If anything, the film’s humour makes the scenes that guarantee this film its notoriety all the more shocking.
Killer Joe marks an exciting return to form by William Friedkin. One of the key directors of the 1970s with The French Connection and The Exorcist, Friedkin is a mercurial and erratic talent. His reputation never quite recovered from the twin failures of his Wages of Fear remake Sorcerer in 1977 and the notorious serial killer thriller Cruising in 1980. There have still been some interesting films – To Live and Die in LA (1985) for instance, one of the most underrated thrillers of the 1980s. Killer Joe, however, feels like the work of a first-time director, not a 76-year-old veteran. This is both good and bad.
The film is directed at blistering pace, looks fabulously sleazy, and appears to be edited with a straight razor. There simply isn’t an ounce of fat on its lean, mean frame. However, it also has a young man’s desire to shock; the ear-severing scene from Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs seems frankly quaint in comparison to the Sadeian set-piece of Killer Joe. Occasionally the film shows its stage origins, but mostly this is a more expansive adaptation than Friedkin and Letts’ previous collaboration, the claustrophobic psychological horror film Bug (2006).
The core cast is superb. Gershon and Haden-Church, as already mentioned, get much of the film's best humour, but Hirsch manages to make his two-time loser oddly likeable despite being an idiot who conspires to murder his mother and offers his sister as payment in kind to a hitman. English actress Temple is superb as the damaged Dottie, apparently innocent but far more aware than those around her realise. However, it is McConaughey who is really going to get chins wagging. Like Woody Harrelson, McConaughey has perfected the art of appearing to coast effortlessly on his charm and good looks, but despite a CV that includes far too many limp comedies the actor has turned in good performances in films like John Sayles’ Lone Star, Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, and even his small part in Tropic Thunder.
Here he initially seems to be playing a darker version of the blue eyed, Paul Newman-esque southern charmers he can perform in his sleep. But as the film progresses and we see his strangely tender relationship with Dottie develop, he moves into darker territory. When the credits roll on this, whether you liked the film or not, I guarantee you won’t look at McConaughey in the same way again. This role could do for him what Blue Velvet did for Dennis Hopper, American Psycho for Christian Bale, or Once Upon A Time in the West for Henry Fonda – completely redefine his screen image.
It is at this point that I have to talk in more detail about some of the films explicit and controversial content. This is not a film for everyone, and I would be remiss in my duty not to try and at least give you a flavour of what to expect. The film is frequently very bloody, violent, sexually frank and contains very strong language. However beyond all that there is a scene of sadistic and prolonged sexualised violence which made made me extremely uncomfortable while it was playing onscreen, but that has also lingered in my mind long after. In fact despite the quality of the film, and its cast, ultimately this is a hard boiled piece of grand guignol. I thought it extremely enjoyable, but I am not sure it has any great depth and I am still wondering if simply being entertaining is enough to justify the content. Certainly there will be walkouts at screenings and Killer Joe is going to attract articles using it to debate and explore issues of misogyny and violence in cinema.
I wouldn’t recommend it to my mum, let’s put it that way.