Flick of The Day: Killer Joe

The last time American director William Friedkin had a critically acclaimed film, Reagan was in the White House. One of the defining talents of the 70's new wave, he made perhaps his best film with 1971's gritty crime drama The French Connection and followed up with The Excorcist. He made his first misstep with 1977's ill advised remake of Clouzot's The Wages of Fear bizarrely renamed Sorcerer. It was largely down hill from there with 1980's Cruising achieving legendary status only as the film which almost ruined Al Pacino's career. Today's flick of the day, Killer Joe, an adaptation of a play by Tracy Letts, marks the first career high point in many years.
A desperately down at heel white trash drug dealer in Texas, Chris played by a surprisingly good Emile Hirsch, comes up with a plan to off his estranged mother to claim her $50k life insurance policy. Along with his delightfully stupid father Ansel, played by a brilliant Thomas Haden Church, he makes contact with Joe Cooper. Cooper played by Matthew McConaughey, is a Dallas cop with a nice sideline in contract killing. Joe's terms are simple, he needs $25k to remove Chris' mother from the picture. Unfortunately Chris and Ansel are short of cash and come to an agreement whereby the decidedly creepy Joe can date his sister Dottie. Of course as is the way with these things, once they let Joe into their lives, he cannot easily be gotten rid of. Dottie seems to exist in her own little world while Chris money problems quickly spiral out of control. A deeply twisted tale, the films meanders to its shocking denouement. You may never look at a piece of KFC again.
An adaptation of a play, the film betrays its source material in its reliance on dialogue heavy scenes but transcends this with some brilliant visual touches. From the opening scene, the film sets out on a bizarre twisted path where anything can happen. Packed with the kind of graphic violence and nudity associated with 70's exploitation cinema, this is an enjoyable trip.
This kind of Southern Gothic cinema relies on good acting not to seem too goofy and in this it delivers in spades. Thomas Haden Church gives his best performance since Sideways, as the amusingly dopey Ansel who avoids conflict in favour of zoning out in front of the television , beer in hand. Matthew McConaughey bucks the trend of an entire career by actually putting in a genuinely worthy performance. Perhaps if he can finally put his back catalogue of romantic comedy's, he can finally be taken seriously as a talented actor.He imbues the character of Joe with an indefinable malice which can strike out at any time.
Perhaps the most surprising element of the film is the dark black humour which runs through it. At the most grotesque moments, humour slips in and leavens proceedings. This comedy carries the film through to its twist filled ending. While not a film which will appeal to all, this is a welcome return to form for Friedkin, perhaps his best work for two decades. It's dark and funny and filled with some wonderfully out there characters. I enjoyed it for its sheer crassness perhaps you will too.