Killer Joe won’t knock you dead

William Friedkin’s latest horror flick isn’t a patch on The Exorcist. But the lead actors are unexpected delights.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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To say that director William Friedkin is attracted to sinister subject matter is a gross understatement. Outside of his interest in the supernatural and the occult, which he thoroughly indulged in a certain 70s horror flick named The Exorcist, as well as Cruising in 1980 and Bug in 2006, many of his films mount stark expeditions into the murkier depths of human nature. His latest film, Killer Joe, is no exception but, despite being an often-gripping journey into greed, violence and murder, it remains a confused and at times repugnant watch.

Adapted from Tracy Letts’ stage play, the film centres around an extended Texan family whose insatiable self-interest drives them to grotesque extremes. Finding himself in debt to some local drug dealers, greasy-haired ne’er-do-well Chris Hill (Emile Hirsch) is in need of either a few grand quickly, or a spare set of kneecaps. Luckily, it turns out his alcoholic mother has a sizeable life-insurance policy, so he, his father and his father’s new wife decide to off the old bird and hire hitman Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to take care of it. The thing is, his services carry a hefty, up-front fee and with no means of paying him until the policy is cashed, Chris is forced to pimp out his twelve-year-old sister Dotty (Juno Temple) to Joe as a retainer.

Dark, twisted and unsettling it certainly is, but from the outset there is something distinctly superficial about these characters. The Hill family, who just so happen to live in a trailer park, watch monster-truck rallies and beat each other from time to time. They are such stereotypical lowlife hicks that they’re incredibly hard to take seriously. The nonchalance with which patriarch Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) agrees to Chris’s plan, and the ease with which the innocent-yet-worldly Dotty willingly surrenders herself to Joe’s predatory advances feels utterly absurd. So, too, does the eponymous antihero himself who, complete with a pair of aviators and an obligatory Stetson, is prone to reminiscing about fishing in Oklahoma and lecturing the family on good manners – when he isn’t out whacking people.

Killer Joe initially presents itself as little more than a contrived southern noir, more interested in crafting quirkily sordid characters than truly human ones. This would all be fine and dandy if it had a suitably twisted plot to keep them occupied, but the film’s slow-burning progression and bizarre ending unsuccessfully attempts to ground and flesh out these figures. What we are left with is an awkward mismatch between surface and depth, which fails to redeem or offset the film’s noxious depravity. All this becomes rather clear in one hideous scene in which Joe inflicts a humiliating pseudo-sexual act upon another character with a leg of fried chicken, a moment which seems to serve no other function than trying to put the audience off buying a bargain bucket on the way home from the cinema.

Despite its evident flaws, Killer Joe remains oddly absorbing in its own way. Much of this lies with the two central performances, which are both unexpected joys. Matthew McConaughey’s smouldering lead is so impressive it almost manages to expunge his past decade of playing inane, perpetually bare-chested rom-com hunks, while rising star Juno Temple performs with an aloof innocence that makes her eminently believable, even though she is playing a character almost half her age. Friedkin famously shoots only two takes per scene and the quality he manages to draw out of these two actors – one somewhat out of practice when it comes to serious roles and the other still relatively green – is nothing short of remarkable.

Like Friedkin’s best work, Killer Joe is a provocative, relentless and uncompromising film, but it is let down by an indecisive screenplay which attempts to clumsily straddle being both a flagrant noir and a frayed character piece. Nonetheless, it’s still worth a watch, even only for the bizarre spectacle of seeing Matthew McConaughey in world-beating form.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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