Bec Butterworth and Andrew Moraitis were both impressed with Killer Joe at the Melbourne International Film Festival
Not since all things Tarantino has a film looked, felt and smelt like Killer Joe. And pay attention – because this is the kind of film moviegoers will reference in ten years’ time when trying to describe the genre of films that follow it. Director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) has put Matthew McConaughey in a room with Juno Temple, Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church, and lit a match. This is at once the most vulgar, alarming, smartest and funniest film I have seen in a long time, and you should not miss it. Unless you’re easily offended.
Chris (Hirsh) has gambled and lost, and the debt collectors are after more than his knees. Taking his issues to his oblivious father (Church), he explains his plan: his mother, his father’s ex-wife, has a $50,000 life insurance policy, and Chris’s twelve year old sister, Dottie (Temple) is the sole beneficiary. Chris has heard about Killer Joe Cooper – a formidable Texan cop with an after-hours calling as a hitman. When Joe requires cash up-front, Chris has to get creative. And it’s all downhill from there.
Another thing Killer Joe has in common with Tarantino is a kind of unwatchable lewdness from which you simply cannot turn away. This film sticks things in your face – some of them that you don’t want anywhere near your face. It kind of inhabits the term controversial. But from the very first scene, when the camera pans across piles of irrelevant odds and ends in the family home and makes them look like installation art, you sit up and take notice. The colour and artistic philosophy of this film ARE amazing. Performances don’t get much better. But the real belle of this ball is a screenplay by Tracy Letts. This is not a new story – Killer Joe the play ran off-Broadway in the late nineties (starring Scott Glenn, Amanda Plummer and Sarah Paulson), and Letts has adapted the show for the screen. Killer Joe is a highly uncompromising and thrilling script, but also incredibly funny – and not just that uncomfortable nervous kind of humour that accompanies extreme violence. The film actually pauses to be funny, and most of the humour comes from Church, who is unbearably perfect for the role.
Killer Joe is violent, bawdy and full frontal, uncouth, contains inappropriate underage sex, murder and strippers. Be warned. But try not to miss it.
It is often difficult to reconcile the modern William Friedkin with ‘Hurricane’ Billy, the fiery auteur who reinvented several genres with his angry, authentic vision. With a few exceptions, his post-‘70s work is exemplified by lousy cash-grabs or frustrating incompetence. It is reassuring, then, to note that Killer Joe returns The French Connection director to bold, confronting territory; this black comedy crackles with the daring,
go-for-broke spirit of early Friedkin.
Based on the play by Tracey Letts (who also wrote the script), Killer Joe stars Emile Hirsch as Chris, a weasel in trouble with a Texan mob boss. Learning that his mother has life insurance, he hires Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to kill her. With no money to offer Joe, the part-time killer and full-time cop offers Chris a deal: his sister Dottie (Juno Temple) will act as a retainer until the
insurance money comes through.
You could argue that the film never entirely masks its theatrical origins, and you’d be right. Recalling Robert Altman’s ‘80s efforts, Friedkin blocks many scenes in actor-friendly two shots, a theatrical approach that is occasionally tempered with the more abstract direction of the Joe scenes. However, it is difficult to fault the director: with a script so rich in dramatic irony and absurd humour, Friedkin just needs to point the
camera and yell “action.”
Friedkin deserves credit for his eclectic casting choices, though. McConaughey never shows his technique, navigating Joe’s sweet and sour personality with minimal effort. Thomas Haden Church gets the majority of laughs with his droll reading of Chris’ father and Gina Gershon handles the challenging role of Chris’ step-mother with versatility. Hirsch is less interesting, partly because of the snivelling role and partly because of his
overly-expressive reading which is all furrowed eyebrows.
Rich in subtext and absurd laughs, Killer Joe is go-for-broke filmmaking that refuses to give its characters and viewers easy solutions.