Sunday, August 5, 2012
KILLER JOE: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church (103 min.)
William Friedkin has never been a director to shy away from the edge. He tested the limits of audience endurance with his 1973 masterpiece, The Exorcist. In 2006, he examined extreme psychological instability in Bug. And before any of this he took home the Oscar for his gritty New York crime drama, The French Connection in 1971. With Killer Joe, Friedkin again pushes the envelope while giving us something new, and something as intensely depraved and brilliant as anything he has done to this point in his forty-year career. It is an odyssey into, arguably, the most depraved slice of humanity to ever grace the silver screen. Often funny, always on edge, Killer Joe is the seediest of crime dramas with performances tailor-made to carry a plot of debauchery.
The plot focuses on Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), a lowlife drug dealer in deep with some local big shots. Chris owes six grand in drug money to some heavy hitters or else he will be dead. His plan: have his mother killed and cash in on the $50,000 life insurance policy. He runs this scheme by his dad, Ansel, a hapless idiot played to perfection by Thomas Haden Church, channeling his dopey character from the TV show Wings. After some convincing, terrible as it may be, Ansel agrees to the idea because, as Chris says "what does she really do for anybody?" What do any of these people do for society? That's besides the point.
Chris and Ansel hire Joe Cooper, a Dallas detective who moonlights as a contract killer. Joe is played by Matthew McConaughey, in yet another bold move towards his career renaissance. McConaughey embodies Killer Joe as a cold and calculating sociopath, but a charming one. Always impeccably dressed, especially up next to the crew in this film, Joe manipulates the proceedings like a puppet master. And when Chris and Ansel cannot cobble together the advance for the killing, Joe decides to take a retainer in the form of Chris' sister, Dottie, played by Juno Temple in a scene-stealing performance. Dottie is aloof and wistful, but she seems to know the score from the start. Her enigmatic performance is brilliant, right there with McConaugheys as the two of them share the majority of their screen time together.
And somehow I have made it this far without mentioning Gina Gershon's Sharla, a pivotal role in the film and one which seems written for Gershon in mind. Gershon has always been comfortable in low-rent sleaze films; not that she is that way in person, but she has a certain look and attitude conducive of these types of films. Killer Joe is a picture after her own heart. Sharla is Ansel's new wife, and she may very well know more than she indicates.
Events unfold, twists abound, and these characters all come together in a final twenty minutes of chaos and depravity unlike anything I can remember, all accented by the setting. There is nothing more unstable in violent madness than a flimsy trailer park and tuna casserole, and Friedkin knows how to use the grimy sets to his utmost advantage. Killer Joe is NC-17, and it earns the rating when all is said and done. This is a film where you laugh, you clench your fists, you shake your head, and you feel just a little bit dirty walking out of the theater. But man, is it a lot of fun, a brilliant little slice of white-trash pulp fiction.
Every performance in Killer Joe is perfect for the atmosphere in which this story exists. And I cannot gush enough over this resurgence of Matthew McConaughey as a real, honest actor. Here is the promise he showed as a young actor coming to fruition before our eyes. He dominates this film as an ominous threat, always calm cool and collected but never too far away from a burst of violent domination. Hirsch is challenging his sensibilities, and Church garners the most laughs. Yes, oddly enough there are plenty comedic moments to go around. It is a funny movie. This is the type of picture where you find yourself laughing, but maybe you feel a tinge of guilt afterward. And I have to say I may never look at a chicken leg the same way again.