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‘Killer Joe’ is like a nasty little uncle you don’t like or particularly trust

Killer Joe
Directed by William Friedkin
Written by Tracey Letts
USA, 2012

It’s not particularly difficult to see what attracted director William Friedkin to the twisted charms of Killer Joe, his new  homicidal and unpleasantly hilarious southern baked neo-noir which opens today and seems destined to stir up a minor whirlwind of controversy for its risqué concoction of sexual violence and prepubescent sexuality. During the halcyon period of the early Seventies Friedkin was fettered as one of the saviours of American cinema, and both his critical, commercial and cultural smashes The French Connection and The Exorcist showered him with Oscar nominations and unprecedented box office success, but as is usual with such icarus like rises an inevitable, incendiary fall was soon to follow. After a string of flops over the next two decades with only the cult crime favourite To Live & Die In LA distinguishing an increasingly mediocre career  – one can only assume that his long-term marriage to Paramount   matriarch Sherry Lansing kept a flagging career buoyant – in 2004 he saw the stage play Bug, written by Tracey Letts and his 2007 film adaptation of this schizophrenic two hander finally put him back on the map with critical acclaim (winning a Cannes nod in the FIPRESCI strand) and an itchy cult cache, as the psychological horror film also garnered plaudits from the Fangoria and Cinéfantastique crowd. Killer Joe is Lett’s first play, another baking composite of deep south meteorology, panting trysts and bruising violence, hammered through with the literary senses of Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner and noir hood Jim Thompson. Lightning has struck twice, as this is a sizzling, delirious and brutal neo-noir, at turns horrifying and hilarious, with a remarkable performance from Matthew McConaughey as you’ve never seen him before….

Welcome to New Orleans most dysfunctional and disgusting sleazy redneck family. Chris Smith  (Emille Hersch) is a reprehensible small time coke dealer who has fallen afoul of the local biker gang. Needing money fast he hatches a cunning scheme to have his estranged mother killed for her $50,000 life insurance, bringing his rather dim-witted and hulking father Ansel  (Thomas Hayden Church) and his slutty step-mother Sharla (Gina Gershon) in on the deal. These impotent hoodlums hire the snake-eyed, black garbed, local lawman  Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey in a career warping performance) for this incompetent iteration of the perfect crime, as the local homicide detective he’ll be the narc assigned to the very case he committed. As always with these affairs there is a catch, as Chris doesn’t have the 25 large to pay Killer Joe up front he instead offers his fourteen year old sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as a tempting Lolita to this monstrous brute, Joe having already taken a shine to the tantalizing teenager, and it’s not long before the double crosses, triple bluffs and barbarous beatings build to a crescendo, a baptism of fire for the Smith family who have severely underestimated the depths of Joe’s unholy wrath….

This sibilating, brooding, rain saturated neo-noir is shot through with an electrifying gallows humor of the blackest pitch, with a mischievous glint in its eye it’s the funniest and most ferocious picture I’ve seen so far this year. You have to salute McConaughey’s bravery, after numerous years in rom-com hell I doubt there are many actors brave enough to conduct such a u-turn of their screen persona with such a disgusting character, he is essentially a steely eyed, psychopathic paedophile of the most repugnant sort, and like every single character in this film their loss is humanities gain. Every single member of the Smith family is playing an angle, everyone is a money driven bastard of the most slithering sort, hell they’re even willing to literally sell their sister or daughter to a paedophile for a few thousand dollars, even Fred Phelps and his malignant brood would shy away from this crowd as being a little too unpleasant for their taste. Emile Hersh who seemed to go AWOL after the rebellious Into The Wild seems back on track and I was happy to see Gina Gershon back on the big screen, she’s always been a favourite of mine and she makes quite the unforgettable entrance in Killer Joe, but the majority of the attention is lavished on Juno Temple as a clear ancestor to both Sue Lyon in Lolita and Carroll Baker in Baby Doll, in a very uncomfortable portrayal of a potentially brain-damaged young woman, she’s the nexus of the fevered lust that drives the film to its controversial sequences that are fairly difficult to watch.

Killer Joe’s  major achievement is its navigation of that tenuous thread between humor and horror, Friedkin is a massive fan of Dr. Strangelove and it’s equitable embrace of the hilarity alongside the holocaust, in a similar fashion this film has you doubling up in nervous laughter in one second before some horrendous, blood choked violence unexpectedly bursts forward, and it’s to the films credit  that when it gets serious the tone appropriately shifts, as it builds a relentless countenance to the final, guillotine edited ending which seems to be increasingly fashionable these days. It won’t be for everyone, be warned that you’ll need  a strong constitution to get through this nasty little tale, it certainly helps if your sense of humor tends toward the darker side but in a summer adrift of serious adult fare Killer Joe is like a nasty little uncle you don’t like or particularly trust, but when you go for a few drinks with him you still have a great time with some terrific stories, and a bruising tequila hangover to boot – this is a film that’s worth the pain.

John McEntee