You’re at a party. ‘Smooth-Steve’ has just told a risqué, but witty story to raucous laughter. Suddenly, over the remaining chuckles, a determined voice chirps up: it’s ‘Awkward-Alan’. He’s trying to better that story with his own, but he’s drifting into nauseating profanity for humour’s sake. Some storytellers have a finger on the pulse of their audience; this guy’s groping their genitals. Glances are exchanged. Grins become grimaces. Our sickening narrator reaches his bathetic punch line. Silence – except for the sound of tendons tearing as your toes curl uncontrollably. It’s like watching Killer Joe, the dark comedy-thriller directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist, French Connection).
Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is an inept, penniless redneck from a dysfunctional family who owes a hefty amount of dosh to some brutal drug-pushers. He needs to pay up soon or else he’ll be dead meat – meat being integral to Killer Joe, as will soon be explained. When Chris hears about his mother’s life insurance policy worth 50 000 dollars, his natural response is to hire ‘Killer’ Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to murder her so he can nab the insurance, simultaneously financing the hit and paying off his debts. There’s always prostitution, Chris – never mind.
The immoral premise draws comparisons with that of the Coen brothers’ Fargo: a husband secretly pays a couple of goons to kidnap his own wife so he can share in his wealthy father-in-law’s ransom money. Like ‘Smooth-Steve’, Fargo maintains integrity as Frances McDormand’s good-natured detective gives us a central character we can root for amongst a host of despicable ones. What’s more, the bad guys are depicted so pathetically, under such a trivial tone, that we can laugh when they’re shot in the face, or blended in a wood-chipper – a true dark comedy. Whereas, Killer Joe simply dives head first into obscenity, waving integrity a swift goodbye.
Friedkin has given his all to create a flavoursome visual landscape, but allows vulgarity to take over. Not long after the titles, he slaps us in the face with an unkempt vagina, and then drags us to an expensive, neon-lit, silicone-ridden titty bar. Juno Temple, as Chris’s sister, Dottie, plays her role with an arresting naivety, marking herself as one to keep an eye on. If only Friedkin hadn’t insisted on belittling her performance with repeated stripping scenes – I lost count – her next job offer is more likely to be Backdoor Sluts 9 than the next Oscar winner.
Killer Joe is marketed as a dark comedy, and does have a good stab at being so: one character is badly beaten to the sweet, lovemaking tones of Clarence Carter’s ‘Strokin’’. However, each time Friedkin injects humour, it is squandered by McConaughey’s dark performance, the lynchpin of the film, which firmly clamps a macabre peg on proceedings. He’s the best thing about Killer Joe, but equally its downfall.
McConaughey gets some bad rap for being a shirt shedding, tan and teeth, kind of player – arguably it’s deserved – but in Joe Cooper, we see none of that. He bulldozes his way into each scene, his enigmatic persona ensnaring our senses. He’s loathsome, but somehow likable. He revels in an eerie quality where good meets bad, similar to that which a blue-eyed Henry Fonda occupied as the child-slaying Frank in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. But it’s as though McConaughey’s searing routine has ended up in the wrong film when seen offset against the comic tone. Friedkin has obscured his comedy to the point that any laughter he manages to evoke is more like the painful kind you spew as someone tickles you into a stupor.
At times, vestiges of Tracey Letts’s original play sit awkwardly in Friedkin’s adaptation. Some scenes would have benefitted from a more snappy approach; occasionally, they go on for so long that all tension has dribbled away before a transition arrives. It’s like secretly climaxing and retaining this information from your partner as they continue to thrash away at you.
Speaking of unwanted sexual thrashings… the final scene of Killer Joe has caused quite a stir – Get-Reel advises any feminists with heart problems to avoid it like a building site. Even the most misogynistic of husbands wouldn’t command their wives back to THAT kitchen. But maybe it’s ignorant to dismiss this moment as crass. Maybe there’s some metaphoric consideration of the deteriorating family unit to be explored in this finger lickin’ frenzy. Or maybe it’s just a dude raping a gal with The Colonel’s chicken.
Whether Killer Joe attracts viewers because of artistic merit or fast-food-related notoriety, they will undoubtedly come to catch a glimpse of this cringe-inducing calamity. It will shock. It will stir. But just like ‘Awkward-Alan’, it will end up alone in a dark recess of the party, solemnly sipping from a Lambrini as ‘Smooth-Steve’ is lifted approvingly onto the shoulders of an audience that craves a more calculated wit.