Killer JoeReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/02/12 01:43:47
SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It happens to nearly every writer, musician, or film director who doesn't die young: Because they never really retire, they'll eventualy have an unimpressive period that runs longer than even a long run of success. Take William Friedkin, for instance - he made some great movies from the early 1970s to mid-1980s, but it's been a long time since, long enough for people to be a little surprised that he's still alive and working. But he is, and his recent collaborations with playwright Tracy Letts have shown he still has something in the tank, with "Killer Joe" a deliciously twisted black comedy that is great without context.Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is deep in debt to a local drug dealer, but thinks he has a solution - have his good-for-nothing mother killed. A $50,000 life insurance policy will go to his younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple); even after paying off "Killer Joe" Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a hitman, and splitting the money three ways with Dottie and their father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), there should be more than enough to pay off his debt. There are a few hitches, though: Ansel's second wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) wants in, and most importantly, Joe wants to be paid up front. After meeting Dottie (whose name is a generous assessment of her mental state), though, he may be willing to take a different sort of retainer.
Killer Joe opens on a casually sleazy note and settles into that tone pretty comfortably, seldom going for the mocking bit of shock value once things have been established but still having a great deal of fun at its redneck characters' expense while presenting the attitudes as occasionally on the creepy side. It's a carefully measured wallow, with Letts and Friedkin toeing an especially fine line in regard to how her family members treat Dottie.
The movie frequently has the form of a thriller, and chooses its moments to twist the plot and crank the tension up, but at its heart it's a dark, twisted comedy, with a great many jokes coming from how the cast of characters outside of Joe really isn't that bright, and even he has his quirks and eccentricities. Letts gives his characters fun dialogue in big enough chunks that the story's genesis as a stage play is never in doubt, but he and Friedkin seldom fall into the trap of having them talk about things that could easily be shown or making the characters more articulate than would seem believable.
The cast is excellent across the board. Matthew McConaughey, especially, is fantastic in the title role, able to take the cool intimidation he's giving off when we first meet him and twist it into something different for when he's sharing the screen with Juno Temple - still dominating and controlling, but also oddly fascinated by and enamored of her. Temple, for her part, makes Dottie into more than a collection of childish tics; she recognizes that there's something off about her but isn't particularly concerned about it. Emile Hirsch is an enjoyable screw-up, and Thomas Haden Church plays a truly fantastic dumb guy as the ineffective family patriarch. Gina Gershon continues to do trashy very well indeed.
It's Friedkin who is most indisputably at the top of his game, though, getting exactly the right tone for every scene and knowing which lines to cross as opposed to where to hold up. He and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel make really excellent use of Ansel's trailer as a set; it's a tight enough squeeze to make even handheld camerawork tricky - this may be the rare case where moving from stage to cinema gives a cast less room to maneuver - but it never feels claustrophobic or limiting until the filmmakers want it to. Inside the trailer and out, Friedkin knows when it's time for a flourish and when it's time for grit.Between this and the good reviews given "Bug" by those who saw it, it seems pretty clear that Friedkin and Letts make a very good team, and they certainly should work together again. "Killer Joe" might not be the start of another great run for Friedkin, but it's pretty great work for all involved.
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