William Friedkin’s ‘Killer Joe’: An intoxicating blend of high-octane violence, dark humor and depravity

Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joke

Killer Joe is not the sort of film that will be liked by all. This is a film that you’ll either be repulsed by or come away from with a smile on your face. I am of the latter camp. I got a big kick out of the whole thing. This is a strange film with strange characters and bizarre behavior. I don’t usually go in for this sort of thing but everything in here is blended in the right proportion and hit the right spot. If you are already familiar with the work of William “Badass” Friedkin, then you know what to expect from this boundary-pushing filmmaker. The film sees Friedkin in a return to form and has him exploring a territory that he has never before. Friedkin never makes the same film twice and Killer Joe is a far cry from the films he has made in the past like The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer, To Live and Die in L.A etc.

Unlike those films, Killer Joe is confined to one small location – I’m guessing some part of Texas – and has all the recognizable qualities of a proper indie film. The film was shot on a tiny budget and a tight schedule – Friedkin wrapped filming in 26 days. I honestly don’t know why this film got an NC-17 rating. I mean there are films with worse stuff out there that got off with an R-rating. And I think this rating kind of hurt the film a little. The story, based on a play written by Tracy Letts (who collaborated with Friedkin earlier on 2006’s Bug) is a wicked, intoxicating and darkly humorous blend of neo-noir and Southern Gothic. It revolves around The Smiths, one of the most loathsome and highly dysfunctional families ever portrayed on screen. The biggest problem with this family, to put it simply, is that they are all incredibly stupid. The patriarch of this family is Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) a dumb factory worker who has to depend on his wife Charla (Gina Gershon) for money.

When Ansel’s son Chris (Emile Hirsch) – who stumbles home one night after getting into trouble with some loan sharks – comes up with a dangerous scheme to get hold of his mother’s (Ansel’s ex-wife) inheritance money which comes up to $50,000, Ansel is forced to go along with it. For this purpose, Chris enlists the services of Joe Cooper (Mathew McConaughey) a snazzily dressed, sociopathic police detective who moonlights as a hitman-for-hire. Things take a drastic turn when Joe sets his eyes on Dottie (Juno Temple), Chris’s oddball teenage sister. Joe takes her as a “retainer” when Chris informs him that he is unable to come up with his advance money. Chris thinks he has a well-thought-out plan and that he is smarter than his dad, but he slowly reveals himself to be as dumb as the rest of them and also a coward. Suffice it to say that things go horribly wrong. There are story elements here that remind one of the works of Cormac McCarthy and the Coen Brothers. Joe feels like a character who jumped out of a McCarthy book.

There is a gleeful quality of the level of violence displayed here but they are oddly cathartic. You look at some of the characters being subjected to intense beatings and extreme humiliation and you go, “Hey, they deserved it!”. There is not a single likable character here, with Chris easily being the most despicable of them all. Every actor is in their best form and obviously, the standout performer here is McConaughey. Undoubtedly, this is my favorite McConaughey role. He radiates a snaky charm and dominates every frame he is in. He is such an intimidating presence. Watch out for the scene with the chicken drumstick in the end. Nothing of this sort has been ever attempted before. You’ll never look at a chicken drumstick the same way again. If it isn’t an iconic scene already, it fucking should be. Killer Joe is among the handful of films that kickstarted the “McConaissance”. If you are patient enough to be not put off by some of the lurid elements, you are going to have a great time.



One comment

  1. One of the many reasons why I love this movie so much is because it puts the lie to the myth that movies have to have characters that are “likeable” and/or “relatable.” There’s not a single likeable person in the entire movie, Thank God and it’s utterly compelling and fascinating to watch just how low these people are willing to go.

    While McConaughey is nothing short of genius, Emile Hirsch is probably my favorite actor in the movie. He’s the very personification of the saying; “Too Dumb To Live.” Such a terrific movie.

    Liked by 1 person

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