Directed by William Friedkin and adapted for the screen by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tracy Letts from his stage play of the same name, Killer Joe is a sleazy, sun soaked neo-noir. Full of pitch black humour, Killer Joe twists and turns its way towards an almost unbelievably sadistic finale that is literally unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, and has subsequently and inevitably earned it the plaudit of an NC-17 rating by the MPAA (for “graphic disturbing content”). Even at 76 years of age Friedkin has proven that he has still got what it takes to get the censor’s panties in a twist.
In a decrepit trailer park on the outskirts of Dallas, Texas we are introduced to Chris (Emile Hirsch), a motor-mouthed small time dealer who has gotten himself in a whole bunch of trouble with a local gang of disreputable sorts that he owes a considerable amount of money to. His solution to this predicament is to off his alcoholic mother and pocket her substantial life insurance policy. Along with his deadbeat father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and his step-mom Sharla (the always fantastic Gina Gershon) Chris cooks up a plan that centres on hiring local DPD Detective Joe Cooper, known as “Killer Joe” due to the fact that he moonlights as a hit-man. Things quickly go south when Chris is unable to make the $25,000 payment upfront… that is unless Joe is given a retainer – the possession of Chris’ fragile younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Chris is somewhat reluctant, due to his own quasi-incestuous feelings towards Dottie, but ultimately his life is on the line and he sees no other option but to agree.
That’s when things start to unravel in some of the most unexpected ways, not least in Dottie’s precocious understanding of exactly what everyone is up to but also her surprising affection towards Joe. Their relationship is both disturbing and tender – she says to him a couple of times, “your eyes hurt” as he stares unblinking, utterly taken by this beautiful, doll-like ingénue. As a whole the cast all turn in terrific performances here, but Temple is truly a revelation as Dottie going to places that many young actresses wouldn’t dare, and her bravery certainly pays off because I defy anyone not to be as captivated by her as Joe is.
Of course the plan falls through and nobody fares particularly well in the end, least of all Sharla, who in a now infamous scene is forced at gunpoint to do something unspeakable with a piece of fried chicken. Some seem to have taken exception to this scene, and in fact the final third of the film where it becomes progressively more violent, nasty and degrading. However, I do not agree with the naysayers. Instead I think what keeps this treading over the line (and believe me, it certainly comes very close indeed) is the pitch perfect black humour, particularly from Church as the gormless Ansel, along with the strong performances from the cast and some tight direction from Friedkin.
I’ve read a lot of comparisons where Killer Joe is likened to Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me (another film that I admired very much) and where this definitely steps into Jim Thompson levels of nastiness it’s an otherwise superficial comparison. Yes, Joe is probably only one step down the sociopath ladder from Lou Ford, but where The Killer Inside Me was a very serious foray into transgression, Killer Joe is far more fun and I found myself leaving the cinema with a wry smile. This is undoubtedly Friedkin’s best film since 1985’s To Live and Die in LA (although his previous collaboration with Letts, Bug, is an interesting if flawed exercise in paranoia). I will admit to having a particular weakness towards this kind of gleefully sadistic southern gothic fare, but I would strongly recommend seeking this out.
Killer Joe is currently on release in the UK and is due a limited release in the US on 27 July.