After his low-key but by and large critically well-received film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ 1996 play “Bug”, renowned ‘bad boy' Hollywood director William Friedkin, the maverick behind some of 1970s American cinema’s most revered and most challenging films (“The French Connection”, “The Exorcist”, “Cruising”) returns to the sort of uncompromising, taking-no-prisoners form that characterised much of his finest material with this, his latest: a screen adaptation (from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s own screenplay) of an even older Letts work, the playwright’s first 1993 stage play, “Killer Joe”. The film quickly mustered plenty of attention when it initially got slapped with the commercially suicidal NC-17 rating in the States and was forced to go on general release unrated; the plus side of such a decision was that it immediately signalled the now seventy-six-year-old Friedkin as being well and truly back on his old form -- although in this case the success of the film lies mainly in the director’s skill at channelling the dark, violent energies already latent in the play (and present in Letts’ vividly twisted work in general) with such clarity, to result in a film that first mollifies its audience with a mordant strain of dry, cynical Southern humour -- but only as a prelude to brutally stabbing it in the throat with some deeply shocking displays of extreme screen violence, much of it tainted with an almost surrealistic vein of sexual sadism, especially during its most talked-about scene, which will leave many unable to contemplate a KFC takeaway ever again!
Perhaps even more of a talking point, in the first blush of the film’s release, was its ‘rehabilitation’ of an actor formerly consigned by many to rom-com hell: Mathew McConaughey is the titular Killer Joe Cooper – a Dallas police officer with an unusual side-line: carrying out professional hits for and on exactly the kind of small-time no hopers he would otherwise be expected to spend most of his day job arresting. McConaughey certainly gets his meatiest role here as the corrupt, sociopathic killer who flourishes in the midst of the complete moral vacuum opened up by the inveterate fecklessness and perfidy of the criminal underclass of ‘rednecks and trailer trash with too much space to walk about in’ he associates with. But McConaughey isn’t the only one blessed with a dream role here: perhaps even more of a revelation is young British actress Juno Temple, who has definitely come a long way since her first notable appearances in the “St Trinian’s” films!
Letts’ work is said to take its cue from an overheated mix of Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner and Jim Thompson and the film’s use of gritty Southern Gothic steaminess, deep-fried in a sense of its characters’ extreme moral degeneracy (Letts’ characters are simply too vacant, stupid and grasping to even realise the inevitability of the doom they’re bringing about for themselves, let alone anyone else) and the constant threat of murderous violence bears out such comparisons. McConaughey acts as a sort of black angel of death, exposing the warped, self-centred (lack of) values and the wanton duplicity guiding the lives of everyone shown here into the nearest sewer and exploiting it, ultimately, to allow his own deranged evil to flourish.
Letts’ parade of unpalatable white trailer trash characters could be used as evidence to indict the author for extreme stereotyping, and Friedkin, as is his wont, is unafraid of grasping the nettle and running with the general tenor of the work in that regard. The film sets up a depressing milieu as a backdrop, of ill-kempt trailer parks and garishly soulless neon-soaked strip clubs, plonked incongruously in the middle of an impoverished urban wasteland daubed in graffiti. There’s not a single truly sympathetic character inhabiting this space, which allows Friedkin and Letts to manipulate our natural inclination to identify with the travails of the lives we’re following, only to present us with a series of increasingly woeful situations that force each viewer to confront the often almost recalcitrant hopelessness of these people as human beings. The climactic scenes turn a parody of a family meal into the site of some explosively divisive carnage, which is merely a preordained result of the hapless machinations first initiated by small-time hick drug pusher Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) in the film’s opening scenes: after being thrown out by his mother (‘I didn’t hit her this time, I just threw her against the refrigerator!’) Chris finds himself in debt to his cheerily avuncular but ruthless supplier, Digger Soames (Marc Macaulay) after he ill-advisedly loses one of Soames’ consignments. This malignly selfish individual inveigles his impressionable, go-with-the-flow dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and his conniving stepmom-from-hell Sharla (a full-throttle performance from Gina Gershon) into paying Cooper to murder Chris’s mother (Ansel’s ex-wife) for a $50,000 life insurance policy due to be paid out to Chris’s little sister Dottie (Juno Temple) -- with the subsequent pay-out being split four ways (after Cooper’s $25,000 cut). The only problem is provision of the up-front portion of Cooper’s fee. But this is easily solved after Cooper takes a fancy to the young, not-entirely-all-there Dottie, and demands her as a retainer in lieu of money owed.
“Killer Joe” delights in absurdist non sequitur dialogue and offbeat imagery, fermented by Letts’ barbed eye for the ridiculous. But even this comic element becomes more and more a source of unease as the rather endearingly odd sides to these characters (Dottie’s penchant for copying Kung-Fu moves from Bruce Lee movies or Ansel’s doltish inability to assert himself in anyway, and his obsession with monster trucks on TV) increasingly give way to the darker corners of their damaged psyches, so that the winsome Dottie, for instance, is shown to be perfectly happy at the thought of her mother’s imminent murder and relates an absurdly detailed anecdote (which almost certainly isn’t true) about how she was almost smothered to death as a baby by the parent in question. A sequence in which Ansel capitulates to the carrying out of an act of shocking violence (hard to stomach even though it’s administered to one of the most unsympathetic characters in the movie) in his own home, and then tries to carry on as though the event hadn’t even happened, culminates in possibly the movie’s most disturbing set-piece, but is also all too believable. The film seems to excel itself in such brutal scenes which, nevertheless, carry some degree of ambiguity regarding how we’re meant to react towards them: comic scenes often turn intensely violent while some of the most disturbingly kinetic and bloody sequences get scored with facetious party music. A one point an uncomfortably sleazy sex act is made all the more hard to watch by the fact that one of the participants claims to be only twelve, although it’s hard to tell how seriously we’re to take such an admission, given the element of role play the scene seems to harbour.
Friedkin’s efforts at disrupting the assumptions of the audience with the topsy-turvy (anti)-morality at work in the twisted world he’s presenting unvarnished to us here are considerably enhanced by the combination of Caleb Deschanel’s gritty cinematography and Darrin Navarro’s dexterous editing -- which mimics the jittery, hyperventilating, hallucinogenic headspace of the increasingly-out-of-his-depth Chris, festering over the pimping out of his own vulnerable virgin sister (‘it might do her some good,’ placates the ever-pliable Ansel!) and looking for a way to back out of the whole sorry deal. The vibe eventually conjured here is in some respects similar to that of Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” (Letts’ dialogue-rich scenes inevitably bring to mind Tarantino’s cast of loquacious underworld types anyway) but Friedkin keeps tighter control of the content and the uniform excellence of the ensemble cast ensures that the tension is never dissipated in an excessive outpouring of cinematic technique, although there’s plenty of that available here too.
The ending is bound to inspire plenty of comment and argument in much the same way, I should imagine, as did the final scene in the last episode of “The Sopranos”: it denies the viewer the satisfaction of orthodox narrative resolution, but the final image – the hesitant twitch of a trigger finger – makes for a powerful and unsettling one to bow out on in a movie which is, I suspect, going to stand the test of time. This Blu-ray release from Entertainment One features a fine HD transfer and a powerful English 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio track. My screener had no extras with it but retail copies will apparently have cast & crew interviews and an ‘on the set’ featurette. This controversial thriller won’t be to everyone’s taste but it is a definite ‘must-see’.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!