William Friedkin – in the likes of The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A. and The Exorcist – has always been a director drawn to the absurdities or extremes that can be found with figures of authority. Killer Joe – his second Tracy Letts play adaptation in a row, following Bug – stretches corruption so far as to have a homicide detective, the eponymous Joe played by Matthew McConaughey, operate a side career as a contract killer. His upfront fee is $25,000 in cash, with no exceptions. The latest party interested in his services is Chris (Emile Hirsch), a young man in debt to a gangster, who proposes a scheme to his goat-like hulk of a father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church): hire Joe to kill Chris’ much-disliked mother, and Hansel’s ex, and collect the $50,000 from her life insurance policy, for which Chris’ sister Dottie (Juno Temple) is the sole beneficiary.
Hansel’s new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) is also made aware of the plan, as is Dottie who holds resentment towards her mother, but the group has the major problem in being unable to provide the upfront cash sum. Joe initially rejects their offer, but then agrees if sexual company with the virginal Dottie is included in the deal as a “retainer”. The two form a strange bond, Joe soon becoming her live-in lover. Chris disapproves of this new development and tries to back out of the deal, but Joe commits the deed soon enough. Of course, as to be expected, the insurance scam doesn’t quite go to plan.
With its sleazy environments and content, idiotic characters entangling themselves with a sexual menace, family meltdowns, and almost parodic Southern Gothic tone, Killer Joe is something like a brutally violent and deranged incarnation of a Tennessee Williams play, and the result is a delicious film of tense thrills and tar black comedy. Friedkin’s directorial efforts are on best display with the stormy atmospherics, slowly unfolding scenes of unbearable tension, and a delirious final act that is alternately horrifying and riotously funny. The actors are on fine form here, though Emile Hirsch’s very shouty performance occasionally distracts in its reminiscence of the material’s stage roots. Juno Temple is especially good as Dottie, the character’s discovery of her own sexuality being a major dramatic turn as she is pimped to Joe by her moronic brother and father. Temple effectively balances the playful and bizarre sides of Dottie, an apparent innocent who also has murderous thoughts of her own and an obsession with martial arts.
The film’s greatest asset, though, is McConaughey. An actor always better suited to playing creepy characters, his Joe is stoic, sexual and an almost Satanic harbinger of death and destruction. Inescapably dread-inducing, frequently frightening but also darkly funny, the actor’s embodiment of the hitman is a stunning, hypnotising performance, and easily his greatest to date. Joe, like the wild film in which he presides, is a captivating force of nature.
Killer Joe was this year’s opening gala film of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.