William Friedkin is what you might call a “veteran of life.” Hearing him on the commentary track bundled with his latest film, Killer Joe, he comes across like a boozy, battle-scarred sophisticate, a New Hollywood old-timer who could bend your ear with half-bullshit stories of bygone days. Like Robert Evans (or the figure of Robert Evans propagated in The Kid Stays in the Picture and subsequent pop-culture spoofing), Friedkin’s macho braggadocio feels entirely earned while at the same time scanning as almost self-parodying. Like a lot of his best films, and especially like Killer Joe, Friedkin is cocky, cynical, and acutely funny. Like it or lump it, he has a perspective.
It’s a perspective he shares with playwright Tracy Letts. The two had previously conspired on 2006’s Bug, a manic folle à deux unfolding almost entirely within a rural Oklahoma motel room. Adapted from Letts’s first play, Killer Joe crosses the border from the roach motel to a Texas trailer park, paring down the sweaty paranoia of Bug for a darkly comic satire of the American character.
An inspiringly cast Matthew McConaughey plays the title character: a police detective moonlighting as a contract killer, hired by a nogoodnik drug dealer (Emile Hirsch) to off his ma, so that he and his father (Thomas Haden Church) can collect the insurance money. With no cash to front for the killing, Hirsch’s hapless Chris offers his teenage sister (Juno Temple) as collateral. Needless to say, the scheme is invariably complicated. The best laid plans, and all that.
The eddies of matricide and incest—the film opens on Hirsch tête-a-bush with the exposed pubic mane of his stepmother, perfectly played by Gina Gershon—broadly signal Killer Joe’s arrival as a naughty bad object of contemporary American cinema. They also, more subtly, announce its theme. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Killer Joe hyper-violently reasserts the primacy of the family as the fundamental atomic unit of American life. Beyond their hauntingly memorable supper-table scenes, both movies attend to the topsy-turviness of inherited value systems, locating their criticism in the darkened parking lots, abandoned abattoirs, and rustic thoroughfares of backwater America. Maybe such stories can only unfold, or unfold with the requisite perversity, in Texas: the seat of America’s lone-star spirit, where everything, even the allegories, are comically outsized.
Written by Letts in the early 1990s, in the blush of family values renaissance of Reagan and Bush Sr., Killer Joe plays just as well in Obama’s America, where puffed-up rhetoric about hope and change can’t quite square with nagging realities like poverty, despondency, and the basic, self-involved dreadfulness at the heart of a lot of people, a cynical certainty that’s even harder to rationalize than an economic slump. If the characters in Killer Joe are victims of their circumstances, they’re also victims of themselves, enslaved to their malice and delusions of intelligence. As charming, menacing, and eponymously lethal as McConaghey’s cowboy-cop is, he’s above all else an ordering presence in place to pare down the shaggy self-interest of the film’s other characters, replacing confusion and chaos with a simpler schema motivated, more simply, by the exchange of money for goods.
Killer Joe may be accused of reserving a grimacing contempt for its characters, chucking as their stupidity and selfishness become hopelessly entangled, culminating in a finale confrontational enough to eclipse many of the film’s other merits. If the sight of a battered, bloodied Gershon fellating a piece of fried chicken seems extreme in its mortifying cruelty (and indeed, it alone more than merits Killer Joe’s video-nasty street cred), it’s only an accord with the film’s withering outlook on the toe-headed degeneracy underlying the American character, and with Killer Joe’s program of inserting himself in the middle of a corrupted all-American family and bending them to fit his own crooked model of drawling Southern gentility. Daughters become wives, fathers becomes accomplices in the murders of their sons, an oily chicken drumstick becomes a penis and a weapon at once, a wedding playlist joke-rock standard becomes a super-sinister sexual anthem. It’s poverty porn, yes. But at least it’s bluntly, even exuberantly, pornographic.
Friedkin’s trailer-trash tapestry may be sneering, but it’s preferable to its opposite: the rosy romanticizing of sub-blue-collar life that passes as empathetic in other quarters of the American cinema (see Beasts of the Southern Wild), which ponder grander, systemic issues of class while fuzzily occluding thornier issues of constitution, of an inherent ugliness that hangs over America like pall. Friedkin’s attitude may not be especially compassionate, but at least it’s a perspective.
The picture and sound are remarkably good, considering how Killer Joe’s home-video release feels like a bit of a cash-in on that video-nasty rep. Shot mostly in close-ups and medium shots (largely contained within the family trailer), the video is especially crisp, especially when the camera moves outdoors into the Texas sunlight. The audio track is also first-rate, wonderfully capturing the ambient noise and sparse soundtrack composed by Tyler Bates. A composer better known for grandstanding operatic work on stuff like 300 and Watchmen, Bates’s sparse, twangy score underlines Killer Joe’s country-fried feel, without making it seem too jokey.
William Friedkin’s commentary alone is a reason for picking up the disc. From describing the “cubistic” manner with which he introduces Matthew McConaughey’s character, to his thickly veiled contempt for American studio films, to his cantankerous attitude toward rehearsing and shooting (he apparently shot only one or two takes for every scene in the movie), Friedkin’s an absolute delight to listen to, even when he gets way off topic or begins repeating himself. Other features, like “Southern Fried Hospitality: From Stage to Screen” and a lengthy interview with the cast and screenwriter Tracy Letts following a screening of the film at SXSW are also informative. Or at least more informative than the standard EPK fare.
One of the best films of the past year—bracing, funny, uncompromising—arrives on home video in a package that makes good on its swelling rep as an American indie video nasty.