Buyer Beware: William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (2012) – Blu-ray review
Here’s the deal with Billy Friedkin. Accept his deep fried, charred-black comedy, and he’ll remind us that the devil behind The Exorcist still sings the best tunes.
(William Friedkin, 2012)
When you see a performance, you make a pact. The money changes hands first – otherwise anybody could renege on the deal by walking out halfway through. It simply doesn’t work the other way around, because the actors might harry you home, continuing to perform while you go about your daily business. So you pay your money, and hope for the best.
In William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, we see the same thing happening both to the characters and the audience: the most extreme case of caveat emptor imaginable. It’s a noir staple that when you hire a hitman, you’d better be able to pay… but here the follies of greed and desperation become ironic furies, taking flight in increasingly surreal, Grand Guignol patterns. It’s a nightmare… or a farce, and in Friedkin’s hands a deeply uncomfortable black comedy that walks the tightrope between exploitation and genuine insight. Hey, you get what you pay for.
From the title, and the high-concept premise – a cop moonlighting as a hitman – you’d expect this to be about Killer Joe himself. And, ultimately, it is, driven by an on fire Matthew McConaughey who has heard enough jokes about his lacklustre career and has arrived for payback. Yet the initial focus is on the family of deadbeats who put their trust in Joe: stoned father Ansell and his petty crim son Chris, not-quite-with-it daughter Dotty and trailer trash wife Charla, who concoct a plan to bump off Ansell’s alcoholic ex-wife but need Joe to waive his terms on advance payment.
A deal is struck – and the result is a hellish mash-up of Raising Arizona, The Killer Inside Me and Lolita. Based on a stage play, Friedkin sees no reason to opt for realism, and the exaggerated performances (Thomas Haden Church is a hoot as Ansell) and deliberate overlit visuals achieve a cartoonish effect, enlivened by at least one brilliant sight gag involving a loose seam. And yet there’s the nagging question: can Friedkin do comedy? Is the director of The Exorcist and The French Connection even interested in making us laugh?
The answer: yes – but only to see the laughter stick in our throats. Friedkin pushes McConaughey (and Juno Temple in a performance that out-Juliette Lewises Juliette Lewis) into performing dark deeds with the lightest of touches. McConaughey riffs on his rom-com past with wrenching results: he drags out scenes of sexual humiliation with a chillingly insouciant calm, and he remains the height of Texan courtesy, demanding politeness even when he’s beating somebody to a pulp. Like the family, like the audience, he wants things to be clean and tidy… but Joe, led by his gleeful director, is also the one who creates the mess.