I came to Killer Joe with very few expectations, other than that the director, William Friedkin had directed The Exorcist and that something involving fried chicken was going to change the way I look on fast food. I had stayed away from trailers, but instead had been ‘wow-ed’ by the underground campaign in London, with huge posters covering the walls of tube stations around town. The image publicised was dark, tense and frightening- everything one wants from a thriller.
The names of the cast displayed proudly across the top of the poster was another reason of intrigue for me – McConaughey is currently starring in two cinematic releases (for very different audiences). One screen you could watch him stripping and showing his buff body in Magic Mike and in Killer Joe, you can watch him stripping, showing off his buff body, being excessively angry and committing bloody murder. I suppose the choice is up to you? Juno Temple is a relatively new actress to Hollywood, but the London born St Trinians and Kaboom! star is starting to get recognised all over the shop, so I suppose her ascent into this art house cum mainstream horror cum thriller was pretty normal anyway. The rest of the cast, including Hirsch, Gershon and Haden Church complete this star set, but I will return to the acting later.
The story of Killer Joe is based upon a Tracey Letts play from 1993, and he wrote the screenplay for this film (marking the second collaboration with Friedkin after 2006’s Bug). As soon as the film started, there were clear theatrical markers, which highlighted this as originally being a play. The direct use of speech, one to another, rather than much internal dialogue was highlighted by the very closeness of each of the characters within the scenes. Although this is now a film, and they have space within their settings to spread out, there is a very clear use of closed in spaces between the characters, as if they were still performing on a stage. This further aids the film in it’s very stylised verisimilitude. The number of locations, which are frequently seen is somewhat minimal and even when the characters venture out of these spots, not much action actually occurs. To all ends, this actually acts as a positive to the film because the story becomes quite layered and the audience would become extremely alienated without the ‘safety’ of the locations that they come to know.
Killer Joe follows Hirsch’s character, Chris, as he persuades his father, Ansel (played by a hysterically ironic Haden Church) to hire a contract killer to kill Ansel’s ex-wife (Chris and sister, Dottie’s (Temple) mother) because she supposedly has a large life insurance that would pay out on her death and Chris really needs the money (which he offers to share with his father, sister and begrudgingly to his step-mother, Sharla (Gershon)). Enter Joe (McConaughey), a police detective by day and contract killer by night. He requires payment up front, but makes an exception for once and instead uses Dottie as his collateral whilst he is waiting for the money.
The story continues, and we follow the various meetings between Chris and Joe, followed by the relationship, which is forged between Joe and Dottie. All the way through the film, various twists and turns occur that invariably make one conclude that things are not going to go well for pretty much any of the characters. But this tension and intensity is what makes Killer Joe so damn thrilling and horrifying,
Looks wise, Friedkin has succeeded in making the darkest film this year (in my opinion, and I am yet to watch The Dark Knight Rises) and without this darkness, the film possibly would lose some of it’s tension. Regularly throughout the film, a shot of thunderbolts hitting the earth fill in-between scenes – this exaggerated use of pathetic fallacy further highlights both the narrative intentions of the film and the fact that this was originally a play. It is almost as if they were given certain tools that had to be used to illustrate the feelings of the characters. The thunderbolt itself is stunning on screen, and the last time it appears, it remains as shocking as the first. Various sequences stand out in the film, including Chris’ nightmare once he proposes the murder to Ansel. As he tosses and turns on the couch, the darkness looks as if it is going to consume him without any care for a strand of reality. This, mixed with a ghostly naked Dottie walking down the hallway seems rather reminiscent of The Exorcist, but why change something that very clearly isn’t broken? The film is set in a type of deep South, illustrated through the colloquial language and the richness (ironically used) of the lives of these seemingly poor people. The caravan home becomes a beacon of safety in a very scary film.
Another aspect to the film, which particularly illuminated my experience whilst viewing was the highly sexualised ways in which ALL the characters are represented. Despite whatever happens; anger, violence, madness- the entire cast is shown as highly fuckable. McConaughey and Hirsch are frequently topless, and juxtaposed against each other. The former with his chiseled abs and smooth chest whereas the latter is hairy and (almost) more manly and yet the characters certainly don’t represent these stereotypes. The entire cast receive star lighting, not just on their entrances but throughout the entire picture. This shows that there isn’t a hierarchy to the cast but rather they are off equal importance. Even during the final sequence when Sharla is being beaten, the emphasis still remains on her chest, her hair, her lips- in other words, her sexuality.
As I mentioned earlier, the acting in Killer Joe, is some of the strongest to have occurred this year. I walked out of the cinema hoping that Juno Temple gets nominated for an Academy Award for this. She simply is stunning in the role of Dottie. She plays secluded and alienated beautifully, and when Dottie is forced to become an adult and make a relationship with Joe work, we see her shed her innocence in a scene where ultimately they have anal sex – but when you watch it, it represents so much more. McConaughey shines here as well, he portrays a dark monster, who will always get his own way. He never actually does anything wrong, he is hired to kill and always makes sure that the right people aren’t wronged (after all, he is a police detective as well!). Gershon is particularly interesting in this film, because although she is a constant presence throughout, one does not realise her importance until the wildly brilliant twist at the end. Hence why one of the last sequences of the film (and possibly the most memorable) is pretty much between her and Joe. You won’t look at fried chicken the same way again… that’s all I am saying.
All in all, Killer Joe, has to be one of my favourite releases of the year. It’s everything I want in a thriller and probably more. The film itself does not lag, and by the end, you walk out fulfilled that is was ‘just right’. The end leaves your mouth wide open and it’s a hell of a ride. Take a watch, this film deserved a much bigger campaign and hopefully the DVD release will push this film out there.