DVD Review: Killer Joe
Review by Ben Bussey
When a seasoned director of note steps back behind the camera, it puts an inevitable slant on the viewing experience. We can’t help but reflect on past glories and relate them to what we see before us now. Sometimes, if the latest work does not stand up well in comparison with that of days gone by, then it all winds up a bummer of epic proportions: take the walk of shame, George Romero, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Robin Hardy etc. But then there are the occasional exceptions whose passion and skill do not seem to have atrophied with age, and whose contemporary work – though perhaps far removed from their most celebrated earlier output – is fascinating and compelling in its own right: take a bow, David Cronenberg, and… um… well, mostly it’s just Cronenberg. Or perhaps not, given that a certain other legend of high-end genre filmmaking, one William Friedkin, has come back from recent obscurity with Killer Joe, a relatively low-budget film that has had tongues wagging all over the shop, demonstrating that – as Steph put it back in July – “Even at 76 years of age Friedkin… has still got what it takes to get the censor’s panties in a twist.” (Incidentally, as Steph’s review gives a good summary of the plot, I’ll skip over most of that here and assume the reader knows the essentials – check out her write-up at the link above if you need filling in.)
Another thing that can colour the viewing experience is the knowledge that the film you’re watching is adapted from a stageplay. At the time of writing, I haven’t seen Friedkin’s previous collaboration with playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts, 2006’s Bug, though if I’ve read correctly it wears its stage origins on its sleeve with a single location setting and small cast. That’s certainly the case here; a few brief moments aside (notably a small car chase of sorts), the action is typically restricted to a few interior locations, with the dialogue very much the focal point. Consequently a great many stage adaptations wind up with a somewhat stiff, blunt, vaguely unnatural atmosphere that puts off some viewers; Glengarry Glen Ross is a prime example. Killer Joe also falls into this trap, but in so doing it does bring an interesting question to mind: which is, as much as we hold up Friedkin as a great director, does he necessarily have a distinct directorial style? Unlike most of his peers whose work can be easily identified as their own at a glance, I struggle to think of any particular directorial tropes that immediately single out a film as Friedkin’s, outside of maybe his signature car chases (and even those only occurred in, what, three of his films? I’d hardly say the one in this film counts.) That being so, Killer Joe is surely as good a representation of Friedkin as any, given that it does what all his best films have done – put the story first. Well, that and the whole pushing the boundaries of taste and decency thing.
From the off, Killer Joe sets out to explore seedy territory in an unflinching manner: Gina Gershon’s introductory shot alone goes some way to setting that tone (mild spoiler – it’s not her face we see first). The story itself is the kind of thing we’d expect to hear told by the protagonists in retrospect, on the Jerry Springer Show. It’s an epic, classical tragedy played out in a rundown trailer park, with barely a sympathetic character in sight aside from Juno Temple’s Dottie – and even she might leave you wondering. These characters are low on hope, but also low on wits, and when the chips are down they’ve all got their own interests at heart, family ties be damned. Joe – he’s just the Yoko of the equation, stepping into the heart of the shitstorm and exposing the cracks that had already long since formed. His presence just makes the inevitable breakdown that bit uglier.
Initially I was skeptical of Friedkin’s decision to use such a relatively high-profile Hollywood ensemble for his cast of impoverished, drug-addled, trailer trash fuck-ups, but in truth this works in the film’s favour, and not only because all involved do such sterling work. The thing is, if we weren’t so accustomed to the sight of Matthew McConaughey degrading himself in endless half-witted rom-coms, there wouldn’t be quite the same subversive edge to the distinctly non-rom-com behaviour of his character here. It’s particularly satisfying given that – not unlike Brad Pitt in Fight Club before him – McConaughey takes on this twisted, confrontational role without actually making any drastic alterations to his usual screen persona, outside of a slightly lower tone of voice and a steelier gaze. And for those of a more sensitive disposition (i.e. presumably not most BaH readers) the familiarity of the leading man may help remind that – as we’ve oft been told before – it’s only a movie. Thereby, no matter how unpleasant and bizarre things get, the edge is taken off ever so slightly, and we are able to take that bit more pleasure out of proceedings.
And that really is the point to be emphasised with Killer Joe – when all is said and done, it’s really just a bit of a laugh. There are without doubt a great many who will take exception to that idea, liable to complain loudly that there can be no humour in such a relentlessly bleak representation of human nature, not to mention the sadistic and sexually deviant content. But whilst Friedkin and his cast may play their cards close to their chest, this is clearly Killer Joe’s true nature. It isn’t a hard-boiled thriller or a gritty kitchen sink drama, it’s an almost Coens-esque black comedy of the harshest and nastiest kind. Anyone with a taste for that brand of humour should definitely have a good time with Killer Joe, and may well be liable to a fit of so-wrong-but-so-right hysterical laughter come the grand finale – particularly once the end credits music kicks in.
Killer Joe is released to Region 2 DVD and Blu-ray on 5th November, from eOne.