Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011)

Killer Joe is the 2nd collaboration between Academy Award-winning Director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) and Playwright and Screenwriter Tracy Letts, following 2006’s Bug. Both films are based on plays by Letts, whose style has been described as “trailer park noir”, and who owes a debt in his storytelling to pulp fiction greats, James M Cain and Jim Thompson.

The premise of Killer Joe is simple. Small time drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) owes a lot of money to local crime boss Digger Soames (Marc Macauley). The only way Chris can raise the funds quickly is to have his errant mother killed, so he can cash in her insurance policy which names his sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as sole beneficiary. Enter Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) – a local police detective who moonlights as a hired killer, to take up the contract.

Chris lives with his lunk-head father Ansel (a terrific Thomas Haden Church), spacey sister Dottie and opportunistic step-mother Sharla (Gina Gershon). This highly dysfunctional family unit enters into a contract with Killer Joe, which is further complicated when Joe insists on his fee upfront. Unable to provide the money, Chris agrees that Joe can take Dottie as collateral, but pretty soon Chris’s plans start to crumble.

Friedkin lets the story and characterisation lead the way. There is no directorial grand-standing; no car chases, fight scenes or set-pieces to navigate. The focus is firmly on character development, and Letts has created characters who fully inhabit their environment.  An atmospheric tension is established from the opening scene of a car travelling on rain-lashed streets; and it is towards the release of this tension that the film itself travels.

Killer Joe is also notable for McConaughey’s central performance. His hired hand with southern-gentleman manners is personable, intelligent and articulate. Of course he’s also a psychopath who is capable of acts of sudden and shocking violence, and he ably walks this tightrope for all of the film’s lean playing time. The entire ensemble cast deserve mention, as everyone dives in and gives it their all. Friedkin lets everyone off the leash for the final, extended showdown in the family trailer, which becomes almost unbearable to watch.

The 77 year-old Friedkin was on hand at this screening in Dublin’s Lighthouse Cinema to provide some valuable insights into his working methods, and to tell lots of funny stories about his years in Hollywood. He is part of that legendary elite of film-makers who came of age in the late 1960s, in the so-called New Hollywood – a contemporary of Martin Scorsese (whose Raging Bull he said he was almost drafted in to complete), Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas; all of whom helped forge a new path for American cinema in the 1970s.

In Tracy Letts he now seems to have found a collaborator who not only shares his interest in investigating the dark side of human nature, but whose penchant for grimy locations and pulpy dialogue are perfect bedfellows for Friedkin’s visceral style of film-making. It will be interesting to see where they go next.

Killer Joe is on general release from next Friday.

Watch the trailer