The Exorcist and The French Connection director William Friedkin is a man who was at the forefront of ‘New Hollywood Cinema’. Now, he returns to the big screen for the first time in six years with Killer Joe, another adaptation of a Tracy Letts play – his last release Bug in 2006 was also based on her work – which this time takes us into the shocking, funny and perverse world of a twisted Texan family.
As the story opens, the family’s youngest male Chris (Emile Hirsch) has landed himself in debt to some fierce drug-dealers. When he discovers that his birth mother Adele has a $50,000 life insurance policy, however, Chris decides to enlist the help of a hired murderer named Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) to take out his parent and inherit the fortune.
However, his warped scheme hits a snag at the first hurdle when neither he nor his underprivileged father Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church) can adhere to the hired killer’s rigid demand to receive full payment in advance. Therefore, they decide to loan out the family’s innocent teenage girl Dottie (Juno Temple) as a retainer until the policy can be paid.
With a stunning balance of nail-biting tension and dark comedy, Friedkin forces us to bear witness as Killer Joe begins to corrupt the childlike sensibility of his virgin retainer whilst planning the murder of Adele. It’s the scenes between these two characters that provide the film’s highlights with McConaughey’s sinister performance playing excellently off the purity of Temple’s, her blonde hair and white attire striking an incredible contrast to the darkly clad Joe.
As their relationship grows increasingly serious, however, Chris begins to realize the consequences of his actions and is forced to face the appalling situation that he has put his beloved sister in. But the chain of events has already begun and there is now no easy way out. The noose therefore begins to tighten around his neck – as well as those of everyone involved – all propelling the viewer towards an inevitable climax that will turn your stomach inside out.
The narrative is mostly driven by the family’s descent into this moral abyss all the while finding themselves increasingly backed up against the wall. But while they are at the forefront of this story the title Killer Joe – the only major character who is not part of the Smith family – feels strangely appropriate. After all, the film is at its core a morality tale and Joe’s conflicting personalities as a law-abiding police office by day and ruthless killer by night embody the lengths to which moral black and whites overlap in the film.
But for all its subtext and depth, Killer Joe is above everything else a hell of a lot of fun. With both a flair of originally and a remarkable ability to make you laugh one minute while retching with disgust the next, it’s superb entertainment. The kind that could very easily transform into a cult classic.