[With the film opening theatrically in New York today and expanding wider next week, we revisit our review from the last edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.]
When the name William Friedkin comes up in conversation, you cannot help but think of the director's crazy genius period in the 1970s with iconic films such as The Exorcist and The French Connection, or even his highly enjoyable To Live And Die in L.A. in the 1980s. The 1990s and early 2000s appeared to show a decline in quality output and it appeared that the magic was gone as the director headed into his seventies.
Then came his chamber drama Bug, a paranoid science-fiction noir with a whole lotta crazy that showed delightful submission to the lead performances, Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd; its rickety one-room conceit worked some real magic. Two films hardly make a trend, but take his latest film and you've got to sit up and take notice: The man is taking some risks with genre and succeeding in doing things a little different with his collaboration with playwright Tracey Letts.
Killer Joe is a straightforward, even slightly uninspired, noir picture with an excellent cast - all chewing scenery in their own ways - that gets a shot in the arm with its nutty third act. I suspect that this improves the picture on balance, even as it threatens to bring the whole house of cards down with twisted glee. Not unlike Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, the film is built out of classic noir conventions but keeps the circle of characters contained within the family, to form a knotty plot that results in a intense domestic hell. Killer Joe goes one further as it morphs into a satire of power and violence and diminishing returns for the sons of America.
Set in a poorer part of Dallas, Texas, a corner of town that almost feels rural with a sea of gas stations, a crumbling theme park and dusty industrial buildings, it is all sweltering heat during the day, and pounding rain at night, a place where dogs are perpetually barking, and the reading comprehension is not too high amongst the locals. The plot gets kicked off when perpetual low-life Chris (Emile Hirsh, cast against type) gets a face full of his mother-in-law Sharla's (Gina Gershon) wild pubic hair. Not in a sexual tryst mind you, this is just the way this family opens the door to one another in the middle of the night. Chris has been kicked out of the house by his mother, Adele, who stole his $6000 worth of cocaine with her new hubby Rex and went on to further screwed up the sale, leaving Chris in the violent crosshairs of the biker gang (sprouting Blue tooth headsets) who want their money. He plots with is confused father, Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church) to kill Adele - Ansel's ex-wife - for her $50,000 insurance policy which would go to the sole beneficiary, 17-year-old Dottie (Juno Temple, her accent flawless and giving Imogen Poots a run for her money in rising Hollywood starlet department.)
With the ratty trailer being small enough and the business of plotting pretty much carried out at a shout, Sharla and Dottie are soon wise to the scheme, and having little issue with removing Adele, all become co-conspirators. Chris hires a local lawman who moonlights as an assassin, the eponymous Joe (Matthew McConaughey, rocking a Stetson and a Zippo), to do the deed. The catch is that he wants $25K up front, with no exceptions. Of course, in this type of movie there are always exceptions. After Chris makes a no-show for his first meeting with Joe, Dottie is there to make the killer a cup of joe, unconsciously flirting with him during small talk. The chemistry is palpable. Joe agrees to do the work in exchange for Dottie's virginity and keep her as a sex toy until the money comes in from the insurance company.
The pleasure in this type of film is watching just how despicable the family (and newly minted business partners) can behave towards one another. It walks a tightrope between amusing and exploitive, but never devolves completely into a Jerry Springer level freakshow. Chris constantly calls his dad a simpleton to his face, while Ansel retorts, "Just go kill yourself, and save us all the trouble." At one point, Ansel heads to the insurance company in a cheap suit to look respectable. Sharla notices a loose thread at the sleeve, and while they are waiting, she casually picks at it, resulting in the entire arm of the suit to detach. A fitting enough visual indication as to how flimsy this scheme is, and how quickly it is going to unravel.
But it hardly prepares for the mockery of table manners that comes in a head during the climactic confrontation, which in tone flirts with the insanity of Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the constant refrain of "Is that your Dick?" It also makes one wonder if Kentucky Fried Chicken got money for some rather interesting product placement. The awkward and uncomfortable, yet farcical, nature of this scene its at complete odds with the tightly wound performance of McConaughey for the rest of the film, but at this point, Joe has been integrating himself into the family, and proves he is as much of an ape as the rest of them.
Is the film a masterpiece? Hardly, as no film that uses Clarence Carter's "Strokin'" as an anthem could be. But there are so many pleasures in watching this cast doing their thing, I would rather have the crazy on display than simply another retread of Red Rock West or Blood Simple. Killer Joe is bound to age as well as those two have.
Killer Joe opens today in four theaters in New York City, and will expand in limited release across the U.S. starting next week. It opens in Toronto on August 10. Check the official site -- linked below -- for theatres and playdates.