William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) takes Tracey Letts’s play Killer Joe to the big screen with an impressive all-star ensemble cast. Even more impressive is Matthew McConaughey at the helm, putting in a potentially career-changing performance.
Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) has found himself in trouble with some gangsters and needs to find their money fast. He hatches a plan to kill his mother with his dad Ansel, played by the fantastic Thomas Haden Church (Sideways). They stand to inherit the tidy sum of $50,000 which will more than cover the cost of Hirsch’s debts. They enlist the help of Joe Cooper (McConaughey) a local police detective who happens to be a hit man in his spare time. As the guys aren’t too flush with money they can’t afford to pay Joe up front and breaking one of his golden rules, Joe allows them to have a retainer, namely Chris’s sister Dottie.
So begins one of the many nefarious deeds of the movie. Chris must pimp out his sister in order for Joe to kill their mother so he won’t get killed by the mob. Ansel being remarried brings his recent wife in on the deal, meaning all monies received will have to be split four ways after Joe has taken his fee. Gina Gershon is the wife in question and with tensions running high between her and Chris it only adds to the drama when things start falling apart. What makes the film is the dynamic between the five principles. Haden Church gives his best performance in years as the idiotic yokel who means well and really just wants some peace and quiet to watch TV. Gershon is the perfect southern stereotype of a white trailer trash woman up to no good and out for what she can get. Juno Temple as Dottie is great as the waifish type; she is detached from reality in so many ways and unable to control her life, but is ultimately the smartest of the bunch.
Friedkin was present after our screening and was asked what made him plum for McConaughey. He simply said he’s a great actor and has been for some time. He proceeded to say how McConaughey has the problem of being very good-looking and working in Hollywood, where, if you’re good-looking all you’re required to do is take of your shirt off and smile. So it would seem he’s starting to take more control over his career and being from Texas himself he didn’t have to work too hard to get into the mindset of Joe or the Smith family. He’d been around them all his childhood. It paid off too, he’s superb, bringing an authentically weighted performance to the screen. Like all great filmic psychos it’s the patience and stillness that produces the menace. Allowing guilty or nervous characters to ramble on while he just sits and stares observing everything, waiting for his time to pounce.
The film oozes (ugh) menace and the ugliness of the human character in its many forms. It’s easy to imagine the film as the play that it was originally, with few actors and fewer settings (all the main action takes place in the Smith’s trailer), leading to an intense feeling of claustrophobia. This is down in no small part to Friedkin even though he’d be reluctant to admit it. Killer Joe is peppered with strong violence, especially against women, which makes for uneasy viewing. One scene in paticular with Gershon and McConaughey has been burned into the annals of iconic/notorious movie scenes.
It isn’t all doom and gloom however, with a lot of dark humour throughout the picture which is mainly down to Haden Church. With such themes it does run the risk of making light or lampooning incredibly serious issues and at times it feels like it skirted to close to the edge. Where it falls down for me though is with Emile Hirsch’s performance. He doesn’t seem to be able to keep up with such an impressive cast and seems to be over-acting a lot of the time. His rants and grandstanding are phony and unbelievable making them look hammy. The rest of the cast save him though, softening the damage.
The film confirms McConaughey’s new direction as an actor and shows that the old dog Friedkin still has some tricks up his sleeve.
USA / Directed By: William Friedkin / Written By: Tracy Letts / Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church / 103min / Thriller / Release: 29 June 2012 (UK/Ireland), 27 July 2012 (US)