Man those Texans have it hard. If they’re not being chased by maniacs wielding chainsaws or cattle guns, they’re being sent to Scotland to buy small towns for oil tycoons. What’s clear from the movies is that Texas takes many different forms; from the barren deserts of Paris, Texas to the grassy keg parties of Dazed & Confused. Only Texans themselves will ever understand the real Texas, so if you’re going to set your movie there, don’t opt for reality – just tell a yarn as big as the state itself.
And this here Killer Joe is one hell of a yarn. Director William Friedkin’s career dipped on and off the radar after massive success in the early ‘70s with The French Connection and The Exorcist, but this is by far his greatest success since those lofty days four decades ago. Friedkin made a hardly noticed return to high-quality drama back in 2007 with the film Bug, which critics championed but audiences eschewed viewing, unimpressed with this demonless psychological horror “from the director of The Exorcist”. But considering that film an artistic success, Friedkin has wisely chosen to work once more with its crafty writer, the playwright Tracy Letts, and the results are a fiendish delight.
The film opens in a rain-sodden trailer park, as trailer trash Chris Smith looks to his trailer trash dad for some money. Soon he lets his dad, Ansel, in on a plan for the whole family to make some quick easy cash; they kill his mother, Ansel’s ex-wife, and give everyone a share of the insurance payout. Ansel’s current wife bullies her way in for a cut. Chris’s sister Dottie, who is meek, disturbed and perhaps simple-minded, is surprisingly eager for the plan to go ahead.
Enter Killer Joe, an assassin for hire with a gift for making deaths look like accidents, who, as a detective in local law enforcement, has a knack for sidetracking investigations into his own handiwork – investigations he is often in charge of. Unable to pay the man upfront, the Smiths have no choice but to offer Joe a retainer before he can get the job done, in this case exclusive access to the beautiful, fragile Dottie. But pimping out his sister doesn’t sit well with Chris, and delays in the plan don’t sit well with his creditors. Soon there’s enough double crossing going on to fill a bucket of fried chicken.
Adapted from Letts’s play, Killer Joe never feels confined or stagey. It uses superbly framed shots of urban landscapes and clever close-ups to create a whole world for its characters, moving scenes that could have been performed on a bare stage to dirty pool halls and abandoned amusement parks. And while almost no character outside of the Smiths and Joe gets much in the way of any lines, this helps add to the film’s sub-realism, enclosing these characters within the seedy world they have created (even the mother, around whose life much of the film pivots, never gets a word in – it’s not her life we care need to care about).
The theatrical dialogue, bursting with Southern slang, is delivered with relish by the ensemble cast. As Chris, Emile Hirsch puts up a strong backbone for the film, playing the feckless dreamer out of depth and out of ideas. Thomas Haden Church gives his best performance since Sideways as his cuckolded father, an emasculated antithesis of the traditional Texan male. Gina Gershon plies her dime store sex appeal in the role of the manipulatrix second wife Sharla. And as Dottie, Juno Temple brings an easily shed innocence and curiosity while also successfully switching her sweet London lilt into a suitable Southern drawl.
But it is Matthew McConaughey who steals the show as the indecipherable Killer Joe. Part charmer, part animal, McConaughey channels all his romcom handsome into this wolf in poster-boy’s clothing. The result is a career-defining (and likely -mutating) performance, which brings this unscrupulous, despicable but fascinating and somehow extremely likeable character to life.
Fully of clever quirks and details (entering a restaurant Ansel is swift to pick up a half-drunk beer and start swigging), Killer Joe zips along at a strange speed for a film in which altogether little happens. The diabolically black humour that underpins the film will not be to everyone’s taste, culminating as it does in one of the most appalling scenes in recent – and yet it dares you to laugh at the horror. It’s hard to resist. Much like the charms of Killer Joe himself.