Published on June 12th, 2012 | by Padraic Coffey0
Killer Joe (2012)
An unfortunate by-product of the extraordinary era in American cinematic history commonly referred to as the ‘New Hollywood’ is the inability of its filmmakers to escape from the shadow of their former shelves. Francis Ford Coppola may strive to produce original works like Youth Without Youth and Twixt, but the box office returns of such films prove consistently disappointing, with audiences seemingly uninterested in anything outside of Coppola’s formidable Godfather series. Few directors can match the cinematic one-two punch that William Friedkin delivered in the early 1970s with The French Connection, still one of the most atypical films to ever win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, followed up by The Exorcist, which shattered records at the time of release, grossing over $400 million from a budget of $12 million. Compare that profitability to Friedkin’s most recent film, Killer Joe ($3.6 million from a budget of $10 million) and a sense of context is given.
Matters were, of course, not helped by the NC-17 rating awarded to Killer Joe. By European standards, a perfectly reasonable classification – preventing children under 17 the right of admission – the NC-17 is synonymous in the United States with hardcore pornography. Thus most theatrical and home distribution chains – through a mixture of greed and idiotic conformity – refuse to exhibit films branded in such a manner. That said, it is difficult to argue the case for the suitability of Killer Joe for minors. Adapted from screenwriter Tracey Letts’ stage play of the same name – the second Friedkin film in a row to do so after 2007’s Bug – it tells the story of Texan trailer-park father and son Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), who conspire to have Chris’ mother Adele murdered in a bid to collect her insurance policy and pay off Chris’ debt to a local drug kingpin. To accomplish the task, Chris and Ansel hire police detective and part-time assassin Joe Cooper (Mathew McConaughey), who demands an upfront payment of $25,000. Unable to comply, Chris reluctantly offers sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as collateral. So begins a bizarre family arrangement, with Joe shacking up alongside Dottie, Ansel and second-wife Sharla (Gina Gershon).
What prevents Killer Joe from being almost unwatchable in its grimness is the presence not only of stars such as Mathew McConaughey, who plays bravely against type as the sleazy yet charismatic hired gun, but the rich vein of jet-black humour throughout. It may have been marketed as a thriller, but if Killer Joe is to be categorised in any genre it must be dark comedy. The use of Clarence Carter’s Strokin’ in the closing credits, after a truly macabre climax, is baffling but hilarious. The world in which Friedkin and Letts set their tale is clearly not held in much affection, with topless bars, beer-filled refrigerators, omnipresent crucifixes and, in particular, the Smiths’ flat-screen television the only available distractions from the tedium of everyday life. Here the slick, smooth-talking Joe seems otherworldly, which explains Dottie’s wonderment.
Despite the seediness of the locale, Letts and Friedkin are not dismissive of their characters outright. Chris may be committing matricide through a third party, but his feelings towards Dottie reveal a genuine affection, albeit one wrapped up in potentially incestuous sentiment, as hinted in an early, nightmarish dream sequence. Dottie herself, ostensibly in a world of her own, is in fact more tuned in to the underhand activities at work than any other character. A sense of unease is sustained throughout the film by its soundtrack, which utilises unorthodox effects such as rattlesnakes, recalling Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Friedkin’s film is nevertheless smarter, darker and less self-conscious than Herzog’s film, and deserves a wider audience than its prohibitive US film classification allows.