Cert: 18 Runtime: 102 mins Director: William Friedkin Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch and Juno Temple
You ever hear of Joe Copper? He’s a cop. A detective actually. He’s got a little business on the side
After missing a few chances to watch Killer Joe, I have finally managed to watch it. The second collaboration of director William Friedkin with playwright Tracy Letts, after the mostly successful chamber piece Bug, Killer Joe is something we don’t see often enough in film. Featuring a cast of great actors, this is a down and dirty slice of Southern thrills, loaded up with enough brutally dark comedy to keep your sides hurting as your mouth continues to hang open in shock. With Letts adapting his play for the screen in a collaboration that brings all the sadistic chills to the audience in an even more illuminated fashion. With some remarkable editing by Darrin Navarro (another return from the Bug crew), Killer Joe gets under your skin quickly, marking a borderline surreal entry into the Smith family, a lowly group of trailer trash hicks who never seem to stop thinking about themselves. Chris (Emile Hirsch) is in trouble, owing money to some dangerous characters, and when his mother kicks him out he shows up on the doorstep of his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), who is living with his new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) and Chris’ sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Less than five minutes into the picture, the door opens wide and gives us a dead-on, front and center view of Gershon’s merkin and at that point you start to get the sense that you are in for something not ordinary at all.
Killer Joe opens its plot with some traditional moves (the selfish, headstrong boy in trouble with criminals, the broken family, etc.), but Letts takes his story in a direction too wild and deliciously dark to find an apt description and Friedkin is with him every step of the way. These two seem to be a perfect pair for one another, and they keep the audience on their toes as Chris and Ansel decide to solve their money problems by hiring a crooked detective in order to off Chris’ mother so they can collect her insurance. This dangerous man of the law is the Joe of the title, and is played by Matthew McConaughey in a performance the likes you never would have imagined he was capable of or willing to bring to light. McConaughey has hit a career renaissance this year, with an expert, awards-buzzed turn in Magic Mike, as well as some solid smaller work in films like Richard Linklater’s Bernie (not to mention another praised performance in Jeff Nichols’ Mud, which got great word out of Cannes and will be released next year), but even if he had been delivering that calibre of performance for the past two decades there would have been no way to expect him to be capable of something like this.
There are very few actors period who are capable of turning in this kind of wickedly sinister, compelling, intimidating and somehow strangely alluring performance. As Joe comes into the Smith home and shakes up their entire order, he immediately sets his sights on the young and virginal Dottie. She is the one true innocent in this tale of horrible people doing horrible things, and Joe’s menacing gaze darts rights for her. “Your eyes hurt,” she says to him when they have their first date and this is a nice little piece of foreshadowing down a path that will go to places you could never imagine. The whole cast does fine work, particularly Temple who really nails the naive and slightly mentally challenged young girl, but McConaughey owns this piece and he is the one who will leave you talking long after the jaw-dropping final sequence. Friedkin and Letts further prove themselves a pair of kindred spirits, but the most impressive thing about Killer Joe is this endlessly disturbing performance that McConaughey unleashes upon the world. He proves himself a force to be reckoned with, and this is a career turnaround I am more than delighted to see happening.