Matthew McConaughey has been on something of a winning streak for the past year or so, with strong supporting work in Bernie, The Paperboy, and Magic Mike. Apparently deciding all at once to drop the tepid romantic comedies and popcorn actioners that have been his bread and butter for the past decade, McConaughey has spent his last clutch of films crafting subtle, nuanced performances that remind one of the early promise he showed as a character actor in the 90s. With Killer Joe, however, McConaughey isn’t the only one who’s gotten his groove back; buffeted by a strong script and inspired performances, William Friedkin finds just the right balance of humor and horror, delivering what is perhaps his finest film since his early 70s heyday.
McConaughey is the eponymous “Killer Joe” Cooper, a Texas detective who moonlights as a hired assassin. Tracy Letts’ screenplay (from his own play) wisely avoids any moral or practical explication of this arrangement — when asked if investigating his own murders may be a conflict of interest, Joe casually replies that it is “a convenience,” — in order to focus on how the steely psychological warfare of the interrogation room fares in the context of disheveled, double-crossing, down-on-their-luck trailer trash, held tenuously together by the bonds of family and shared troubles.
The family in question is the Smiths — lug-headed paterfamilias Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), trouble-making son Chris (Emile Hirsch), beguilingly intemerate daughter Dottie (Juno Temple), and indecorous stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) — who enlist Joe to kill Chris and Dottie’s cuckolding mother when it is learned that she holds a fifty-thousand dollar life insurance policy of which Dottie is the sole beneficiary. Chris intends to use the money to pay off his drug-dealing and gambling debts, send his sister to school, and to reimburse Joe for his services. Joe, however, is unaccustomed to taking payment in arrears and demands a retainer: Dottie.
The scenes between McConaughey and Temple are the film’s most electric and Killer Joe belongs as much to her as it does to him. When the two performers lock eyes, it’s galvanizing; McConaughey’s calm, intimidating glare is met glance for glance by Temple’s assured mix of fear and intrigue. Temple has said that she looked to Sissy Spacek’s marvelous performance in Terrence Malick’s Badlands for inspiration, and while it is true that both Holly and Dottie possess an eerily precocious calm that belies their profound naivete, Temple infuses Dottie with something unhinged, discordant, and repressed. It is to her benefit that Temple appears much younger than her twenty-three years, as the juxtaposition of the infantile and the erotic is established repeatedly throughout the script and staging as an evanescent oasis of purity amidst the depleted shambles of the morally desolate deep south.
Thomas Haden Church provides the film with much of its humor, playing down Ansel’s dimwittedness and playing up his tired resignation. Gina Gershon is rarely given such a meaty role to chew on (pun intended — you’ll see…) and digs right in with the perfect amount of trash and sass to sell it without falling into caricature. Emile Hirsch is game, but perhaps a bit too clean-cut to truly convince in a role originated on the stage by Michael Shannon. Still, he hits all the right notes, which is the most important thing. Overplay anything — the violence, the humor, the eroticism — and Killer Joe could have easily fallen into camp. Instead, and thanks in no small part to Caleb Deschanel’s rich cinematography, all the pieces of this southern-fried Gothic fall perfectly, exhilaratingly into place.
One could be forgiven for having written off William Friedkin. Despite some acceptable action pictures (To Live and Die in LA, Sorcerer) and a valiant but imperfect attempt at a psychological thriller (Bug, also from a Tracy Letts play), nothing in his filmography has so much as hinted at the brilliance he exhibited in The French Connection and The Exorcist. Now, almost forty years later, comes Killer Joe, which does for chicken drumsticks what The Exorcist did for pea soup. But behind the shocks and the laughs lies an excellent picture — indeed, one of the year’s best — about mind games, masculinity, and the acquisition and abuse of power.