William Friedkin’s Killer Joe is a gruesome, greasy bucket-load of uninhibited tastelessness. And I mean that in the nicest possible way.
Adapted from a play by Pulitzer winner Tracy Letts, whose previous collaboration with Friedkin on 2006’s Bug marked a rare high-point in the director’s patchy post-Exorcist career, this gleefully obscene and murderous black comedy blends authentically trashy plotting and characterisation with graphic scenes of violence, sex and trailer-park living. All that said, the most memorable thing about it is the work of Matthew McConaughey. That’s right. Matthew McConaughey. The star of Sahara, Fool’s Gold and How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days. To say that his role in Killer Joe is the best performance of his career isn’t saying much. So instead, I’ll say it’s probably the most deranged and captivating performances a mainstream Hollywood actor has given since Heath Ledger put on clown make-up to fight Batman.
The story begins on a stormy night in a Texan trailer park, with Chris (Emile Hirsch; The Darkest Hour) banging on the door of his families mobile-home. A petty drug dealer, Chris is seriously in debt to a local crime boss, and so he schemes with his slow-witted, beer-swilling father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church; We Bought a Zoo) to murder his mother – Ansel’s ex-wife – for her $50,000 life insurance policy. In case the flippancy with which they plan to slaughter a family member doesn’t make it clear how disgusting these people are, the way Ansel’s new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon; Showgirls) answers the door with her pubic mound on full display will drive any remaining doubt from your mind.
Indeed, it seems like Letts and Friedkin sifted through decades of trailer-trash clichés to envision these characters: individuals who start the film as physically repulsive, unremittently stupid and morally bankrupt, and then only get more horrible as the story progresses. Killer Joe isn’t interested in subtly or political correctness to be sure, but nor is it over-the-top, juvenile or jokey. Gershon, snarly and vulgar, and Church, monosyllabic with uneven facial hair and a stained pair of long-johns, embody the unashamed stereotypes they play, and most of the wicked comedy comes from the wry recognition that people like this – although probably not quite as awful – really do exist.
With murder on their mind, Chris and Ansel hire “Killer” Joe Cooper (McConaughey), a detective with the Dallas Police Department who moonlights as a hit-man. Polite, soft-spoken and dressed entirely in black – black coat, black gloves, black cowboy hat – Cooper could easily be considered by future cinephiles as being up there with Hannibal Lecter and Blue Velvet baddie Frank Booth as one of creepiest villains of all time. Friedkin, responsible for one of the most sinister horror films of all time with The Exorcist, proves repeatedly that he hasn’t lost his touch; a perverse early scene in which Cooper “seduces” Chris’ virginal sister Dottie (Juno Temple; The Three Musketeers), served up to the killer by her brother and father in lieu of upfront payment, is drawn out for maximum discomfort, and is pointedly lacking in guffaws.
But truly, the screen belongs to McConaughey. Although there’s no physical transformation to speak of, it’s safe to say that the actor is unrecognizable as the titular Killer Joe, a man who radiates menace for the first two thirds of the picture before exploding in a glorious display of unhinged violence and depravity, so unexpected and shocking that you cannot help but laugh. As a result of its carnage, the film received the rarely bestowed NC-17 classification in the United States, meaning if it’s ever released in Australia, you can guarantee it will be rated R18+. Which is appropriate, if somewhat disappointing: I can’t tell you how amusing it’d be to expose fans of McConaughey in Sahara to his work in Killer Joe.