Adapted from the Tracy Letts stage play of the same name, Friedkin brings to the big screen the grim tale of a southern American family’s attempt to knock off the indirectly referred to mother character in the hope of pilfering the money left in her will. They do this by hiring Joe (Matthew McConaughey), an aviator wearing detective come part time murderer topped off with the obligatory Stetson. What ensues is a madcap hour and a half of southern fried film noir of a similar likeness to Friedkin’s previous work, Bug (another Letts adaptation) in both psychological intensity and mordant black humour.
The family, played by Emile Hirsch (the deadbeat son and progenitor of the plan, Chris), Thomas Haden-Church (the dopey father, Ansel) and Gina Gershon (lascivious step mother, Sharla) all pull out stellar performances as one of the most dysfunctional families you’re likely to see on screen. Of particular mention however, is JunoTemple’s inspired performance as the enigmatic daughter Dottie who also happens to be the prospective recipient of her mother’s small fortune. Dottie is soon dragged into a stark tale of mistrust once Joe expresses an interest in her unassuming and naïve ways. What she doesn’t know however, is Joe’s desire to make her collateral for the hit which the family (being the sensitive types) willingly accept.
Of course matters go from bad to well…worse as Joe’s relationship with Dottie gradually blossoms, affording him space to assimilate himself into the lives of the family. It’s an enthralling spectacle as the family soon become wrapped up in their own fairly despicable misdeeds, highlighting issues of trust and the state of the modern family unit. However it would a false step to suggest that Killer Joe’s strengths lie in any incisive social criticism or even in its roots as a gritty, modern morality tale. What Friedkin does best is highlight the absurdity of situations, the various potential for both good and evil and the apparent nonsense of what drives people to do certain terrible things.
And yet, I’ve not even touched upon what has recently been affectionately dubbed as the ‘chicken-leg scene.’ Without spoiling the film’s payoff (and it is a truly violent and incendiary one to say the least), there is a particularly harrowing moment towards the end involving the torture of Gina Gershon’s character using only a fried chicken leg. In addition to being one of the most repugnant things I’ve seen on screen it has largely divided critical reception over what has been interpreted as misogyny for paltry shock value. This inevitably leads to the argument over whether a film can ever go too far given the largely desensitised disposition of most modern film goers. While the obvious answer is still yes, the wafer thin line between what is acceptable or not on film is still an issue of much debate. For me, the very absurdity wired into the film’s genetic coding created a sufficient emotional distance from the action; rendering the scene another horrendous step into the black hole created by the sins of the family. The moment is exactly as it should be, undeniably disgusting but without the pretence of sensation. I’d venture as far to say that there’s even a morbid element of stifled humour in the unshirkable amorality of the situation as it unfolds for the family—the catastrophic product of their greed and the final result of their grim Faustian pact.
While not of the same calibre as Friedkin’s more notable works, The Exorcist or even Bug, Killer Joe nevertheless serves as a fiery example of a director unshakable in his vision, even after all these years. The fact that the film seems to have effectively upset people is arguably the film’s strongest asset. This isn’t to lump Friedkin’s work in with the Hostels, the Saws or the billion and other scandal cases, but to praise Killer Joe as a film that shocks without falling back on convention or gory spectacle. It both gets under your skin and smacks you in the face with its blackly comic audacity. It’s an indication of a director still firmly imbedded in the lexicon of modern cinema and like it or not, it will without a doubt provoke reaction from even the most passive cinema fan— something remarkably rare in film nowadays.