Raucous, raunchy and funny as hell, Killer Joe is a deliciously twisted thriller/crime drama. Veteran director, William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection), not only flourishes in familiar territory but skillfully flips his favourite schematic inside-out and on its head. Even die-hard fans will be surprised by this film’s truly jaw-dropping mix of sadism and hilarity.
Based on the play by Pulitzer and Tony Award winner Tracy Letts, Killer Joe follows Chris (Emile Hirsch), a young drug dealer in dire straits, who hires Joe Cooper the crooked cop (Matthew McConaughey) to kill his mother for her insurance payout. He’s not a bad kid, really – Mom stole his drugs before he could sell them and now his boss wants the money or his life. It seems like a simple enough plan to hire Joe, who’s well-known for moonlighting his off-beat gig. The trouble is, the titular detective wants his money up front and the kid doesn’t have it. So Joe sets his sights on Chris’ hauntingly innocent sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), as collateral. When this Stockholm Syndrome subplot slams into the Cinderella myth, Friedkin makes your hair stand on end.
Matthew McConaughey‘s riveting turn as the amoral killer cop infuses just the right splash of menace and charm to drive the upheaval in the film’s trajectory. His intimidating presence is all the more unnerving because of Joe’s Southern gentlemanly manner. While Popeye Doyle was obsessed with the rules of being a ‘good cop’ in The French Connection, Joe Cooper demands his clients behave with an old-fashioned sense of decorum. He may be unethical as a cop but he’s still an oddly principled killer.
Killer Joe moves with lightning speed as Friedkin juggles and weaves the various subplots and styles. Gorgeously grim noir aesthetics underpin this journey into the darker core of human existence. But the bleak comedy consistently hovers in the wings, generally activated by Thomas Haden Church’s deadpan delivery as Chris’ father Ansel. As a foil to the manic killer-cop, Ansel provides the necessary tension for the film’s pitch black jokes to land and even jab at times. It’s a perfect combination.
Friedkin’s genius lies in the manner in which the explosive shocks in the action mingle with the subtle and nuanced nods to noir. The menace is always present, the relief is often shrill and the comedy is ominously understated. This fusion is key. One laughs often despite oneself. Even in the downright sadistic moments, one marvels at the film’s originality.