Unlike his fellow Directors Company founders, Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin has kept working, even as his New Hollywood contemporaries concentrate on other projects or retire. While some of his more recent work may not remain at the level of The French Connection or The Exorcist, Friedkin still should command respect. His newest, Killer Joe, may not reach the heights of his early classics, but it does make for a fun time.
Chris (Emile Hirsch) shows up at the trailer home belonging to his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and step-mother Charla (Gina Gershon) late at night seeking the one family member he can actually count on, his younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Chris, a low-level dealer, is up to his ears in debt to a local drug distributor and is facing a death sentence if he can’t pay off the dealer soon. He hatches a scheme with his father to have his mother killed, and he’s found a man to do it, Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who by day serves as a Dallas police detective but moonlights as a hired killer. Chris plans to ask Joe to kill his mother with the promise of payment after her insurance policy comes through, as the sole beneficiary is Dottie. However Joe will not waiver from his demand for payment up front, and Chris and Ansel arrange for Joe to take Dottie as a retainer. Dottie, who seems much more a little girl than young woman, goes along with the plan, developing feelings for Joe even as Chris begins to have second thoughts. As the plan unravels, the intrigues that led to the initial formulation of the plan come to light, and things get very intense, very quickly.
While Joe is the title character, the film, in many ways, belongs to Temple. Not only does her character play a pivotal role, she brings an ethereal feeling to what can be at times a fairly heavy enterprise. Dottie also is responsible for many of the laughs in the film, even as the world seems to be collapsing around her. McConaughey, too, adds to what’s been a very interesting year for him acting-wise. Joe is a man who plays things very by the book, so much so that he seems to be in control even when he’s doing things that seem utterly insane. That quality can be funny at times, but more often is completely terrifying, especially during the climactic moments of the film, during a showdown with the family. The chemistry between McConaughey and Temple works very well in the intense scenes they share. Something about Dottie’s innocent nature seems to let something of Joe’s veneer slip. Suddenly the audience gets a glimpse of something still very intense, but also very different underneath. Veteran actor Marc Macaulay also stands out in a very brief but memorable turn as the drug dealer Digger Soames.
If there’s a major issue in the film, it may be Hirsch, who doesn’t seem completely up for the challenge of playing this type of low-life character. Though Hirsch played a similar character several years ago in Alpha Dog, Chris is much more of a natural loser than the schemer Hirsch played in that film. Chris gets almost swallowed up by the force of both Joe and his sister’s personalities in their scenes together, and for someone who at least fancies himself the prime-mover in his family, that’s somewhat surprising. Haden Church and Gershon are both good, but their characters and their relationship aren’t as well defined as they could and should be.
It also needs to be noted that Killer Joe is not for those easily offended by graphic depictions of sexuality and violence, and, perhaps most importantly, the marriage between the two. There are a number of scenes that depict intense sadism, particularly the climactic scene, and it may be too much for some. The film definitely earns its NC-17 rating, and, unlike some MPAA decisions, this one seems justified on the grounds of both sex and violence.
But, if you’re aware of what you’re likely to see going in, there’s no reason you can’t have a lot of fun at Killer Joe. While it’s very intense and even brutal in spots, it also has some of the best laugh moments you’re likely to see in a movie this year, including comedies. Even with its warts, it’s something very much worth checking out, just so long as you’re prepared for it.