Thursday 2 December 2021

Article: Southern Fried Chaos - Rambling Re-watch of Killer Joe

Killer Joe may now be a decade old, yet it’s lost none of the anarchy which made it so memorable on release. In fact, with current cinematic expressions (both thoughts and films) trapped in a moral binary state, Joe feels even edgier. There are times that this first collaboration between director William Friedkin and playwright Tracey Letts feels like a scrub down with wire wool and sand. Yet its abrasiveness still delivers a morbid delight. Once the film hits fever pitch, it is still difficult to turn away.

This tale of deep-fried double indemnity begins when Chris (Emile Hirsch) gets thrown out of his mother’s house. The young drug dealer soon hatches a ludicrous scheme to off his mother with the help of his oblivious father; Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church). Word has it that if Chris’ mother dies, her insurance pay-out will land in the lap of Chris’ innocent sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Sounds too good to be true. It certainly comes across that way to Detective Joe Cooper, the full-time cop, part-time contract killer hired to do the deed. With Chris unable to stump up the cash for Joe, the cop requests a retainer: Dottie. With Killer Joe beginning in the middle of a thunderstorm, you know these people won’t find peace.

Half a neo-noir, half grotesque morality tale, Killer Joe doesn’t hold the same gritty faux-documentary style imagery as Friedkin 70’s works. There’s a slickness in Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography which firmly highlights a stark contrast from the muted tones seen in the likes of The French Connection (1971) or The Exorcist (1973). Yet the scuzzy sensibilities that have been found in many of Friedkin’s characters remain very much intact. In an opening scene, Chris opens a door to a character introducing us to their private parts before we see their face. Each member of this low-rent family only seems to communicate in arguments. Their blind ignorance is only matched by greed. Their obnoxiousness wouldn’t feel out of place in a Rob Zombie movie. Yet even the Firefly family has more kinship than these unfortunates.

This brings us to the titular Joe, who Roger Ebert remarks in his review of the film as not stupid but makes the severe mistake in not realising how stupid this family is. Dottie sees the danger that resides within him. “His eyes hurt,” she remarks more than once. Her comments are often dismissed because the stupidity of the family members is more than a touch louder. Dressed mostly in black, a shot early in the film frames Joe in a front door window peering in at the innocent “retainer”. An economically effective image of the game being preyed upon.

Matthew McConaughey’s performance as Joe was hailed as a career-best. It’s not difficult to see why. Within the decade before Joe Cooper, McConaughey’s most visible roles were a raft of middling features in which his good looks and laid-back southern drawl were the defining aspects of some bland displays. For a long time, the actor who held roles in films such as A Time to Kill (1996) and Amistad (1997) seemed almost doomed to banal rom coms in which he could be found leaning against his female co-star on the marketing posters. Lesser seen films like Frailty (2001) helped punctuate reminders that McConaughey was fully capable of complicated or subversive roles. That said, such performances probably don’t bring home as much bacon as How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003). Fair dues.

Between 2011-2014, McConaughey netted a glut of roles that had media outlets hailing a 'McConaissance'.  A resounding career comeback in which nearly every display by the actor was worth watching. Killer Joe was near the start of this second act. McConaughey resurrected his righteous cop act from John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996) and inverting it with a large injection of corruption. That easy-going image of the early 00s is left waving in the distance. With these new choice roles, McConaughey brings forth something more profoundly sinister. With this newfound intensity, Joe Cooper rules supreme. The lazy, baritone drawl is now something more deliberate and mannered. The knowing, slightly smug smile is missing. The haunted look on McConaughey’s face during Joe’s first anxiety-ridden meeting with Dottie becomes a primer to another of the actor’s Top tier performances: True Detective’s Rustin Cohle. Both Joe Cooper and Cohle have McConaughey throwing the kind of middle-distance stare that suggests that years of investigation have plunged each of them deep into their own heart of darkness. At least Cohle’s nihilism has a glimmer of a man looking to repentance. The moment Joe Cooper’s eyes settle on the innocent Dottie, the man has designs to remove that purity.

Friedkin revels in the dysfunction with a wicked sense of humour. Joe, Chris, and Ansel converse with each other in a morbid Three Stooges mentality. At the mid-way point, Chris has a run-in with his debtors. A scene executed with sly cordial hospitality. Later Ansel has a suited sight gag for the ages. A joke so perfect I had to scold myself as I forgot it happened. It is pitch-perfect. The finale is a different matter. The comedy soon dissipates before throwing the audience headfirst into the infamous "K Fried C" scene. With Friedkin reminding viewers that even in the twilight of his career, he knows how to put together a sequence that can make a person gag.

The graphic climax came under a cloud of controversy, with Friedkin steadfastly refusing to bow down to censor the film. “To get an R rating, I would have had to destroy it in order to save it and I wasn't interested in doing that,” Friedkin remarked in an interview with Rope of Silicon. The MPAA released  Killer Joe with the NC-17 rating, often a death nail in terms of commercial viability. Looking at the film a decade later, in an era where online conversations around even the slightest moral grey area require a whiff of smelling salts, one feels an element of luck that such a film came out unscathed. These are morally repugnant crooks, whose deeds are more than a little grim.  Just like the 70s Friedkin understands the assignment and the film never sympathises with its ugly people. But just like those days, he does more enough in Killer Joe for us to laugh and fear them. Praise be.