Bad-boy director William Friedkin (The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A.) has definitely not mellowed in his old age. If anything, he's gotten edgier and more in-your-face—and that's saying a lot about the guy whose adaptation of The Exorcist still keeps people awake at night.
His latest feature, a screen version of the Southern Gothic-meets-Grand Guignol play Killer Joe, by playwright Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) is a comedy so black it warps the screen, a train wreck of humanity that you just can't tear your eyes away from, no matter how badly you want to.
At its core it is a very bent family drama set in Dallas (but shot in New Orleans) in which high-strung young drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) decides to clear some debt by having his mother killed in order to cash in on her fat insurance policy. (The way he sees it, it's her fault he's in debt to his employers—she stole his cocaine stash—and no one would miss her anyway.)
It becomes a family affair when he learns that the beneficiary is his spacey virgin sister Dottie (Juno Temple), and Chris brings his boozer father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and foul stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) in on the scheme. They enlist a hired killer to perform the actual deed: a Dallas cop named Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who is quite likely insane. Joe takes Dottie as his "retainer" when his clients are unable to pay his fee in advance.
Friedkin adapted Letts' equally twisted Bug in 2007, turning it into a histrionic character study that went a little too far off the rails. With Killer Joe, he's much more focused and assured. He meticulously orchestrates the story's build-up to an inevitable bloody reckoning, and when it comes it is cartoonishly brutal in the Martin McDonagh mold. It's great to see him wholeheartedly dive back into the garish, unrepentant noir spectacle that served him so well in his heyday. (Interesting that Friedkin is not directing the film version of August: Osage County, which stars Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts and is due out in late 2013.)
It helps that he's assembled a near-perfect cast. Hirsch and Temple do a fine job at finding new angles on what border on stock trailer trash roles, and Gershon is game for just about anything and willing to play Sharla to the sleazy hilt. The real gold is in Church's deadpan delivery as the dim-witted Ansel and McConaughey's simmering depravity as a cop so bent it's incredible. The two play off each other well, and it's a shame that haven't worked together sooner.
McConaughey re-invented himself a little last year with the surprising The Lincoln Lawyer and carried it over into 2012 as a preening attorney Bernie and self-worshipping strip club owner in Magic Mike. Here, he's well-dressed (all in black, of course) and soft-spoken, charming, and broadcasting an aura of evil that makes you squirm as you anticipate the moment when he snaps.
Take note: Killer Joe bears an NC-17 rating, primarily due to a scene in the final reel that provides Kentucky Fried Chicken with some very dubious product placement. Killer Joe opens Friday, Aug. 3 at the Angelika Film Center Dallas.
◊ Here's the trailer for Killer Joe: