Theoretically speaking, what might you get if you put the collected works of Tennessee Williams, John Waters and Quentin Tarantino in a blender and then ran it through a projector? I’m guessing you would get a film on the order of Killer Joe, the latest film from Oscar-winning director William Friedkin, who gave us The French Connection, The Exorcist, and one of my favorites, The Night They Raided Minsky's. Although Friedkin has been keeping a fairly low profile lately, he’s come roaring back with a vengeance with this hard as nails and goofy as all get-out murder story. Adapted from his 1998 off-Broadway play by scribe Tracey Letts, his story and dialogue fit Friedkin’s style to a “t”.
Matthew McConaughey has been trying very hard to change his image from a rom-com pretty boy to a real actor. He has succeeded. Starting with Bernie, then Magic Mike, and now Killer Joe, he has done a complete 180 and come up with a performance that is Oscar nomination worthy. As the title character, McConaughey plays Joe Cooper, a Dallas police detective who sidelines as a hit man for hire. He is approached by a family to dispatch the estranged mother of the clan in order to nab her insurance policy proceeds. Unbeknownst to Joe, this dim-bulb dysfunctional gang of four is nuttier than any screen family since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Unbeknownst to them, Joe is nuttier than the four of them put together, and ten times as scary.
He puts the cherry on the cake of “creepy,” and I mean that in the nicest, Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, kind of creepy.
In addition to the outstanding turn by McConaughey, the family unit is peopled by four terrific performers. Thomas Haden Church, Oscar nominated for Sideways, is Ansel who ambles through life as clueless as a hound dog. He is married to his second wife, Sharla, embodied by Gina Gershon, in her best role since Bound. The two siblings by the first wife are young actors Emile Hirsch, from Speed Racer and Savages, as Chris, and Juno Temple as his sister Dottie. She recently had a supporting role in The Dark Knight Rises, and in Killer Joe is reminiscent of another favorite cinematic underage blonde, Carroll Baker in Tennessee Williams’s Baby Doll in 1956. All these performances are spot-on excellent, and are funny, sad, pathetic, and frightening…and sometimes all at once.
Adding to the pedigree of Killer Joe is cinematography by Caleb Deschanel, five time Oscar nominee and photographer of such hits at The Right Stuff, The Black Stallion and Flyaway Home.
However… and this is a big HOWEVER… you need to be aware that this is a raw, violent, profane, and decidedly twisted tale that might not appeal to every sensibility. But if you’re attuned to the works of the aforementioned Williams, Waters, and Tarantino, Killer Joe should not be that much of a stretch for you. It’s both riveting and repulsive, filled with wry dialogue, great moviemaking, and five of the best performances you’re likely to see all year. And it’s also proof that some of the best film making today is being done on a low budget outside of the studio system.
The NC-17 rated Killer Joe is now showing exclusively at the Esquire Theatre.