The career of William Friedkin will always be defined by The French Connection, with its violent and amoral cop, and The Exorcist, featuring a little girl inhabited by demonic forces. There's a hint of both these unquiet spirits in Friedkin's new film: a gruesome, brutally violent and queasy trailer-park nightmare from deep in the heart of Texas. It's adapted by Tracy Letts from his 1993 play (Friedkin also turned Letts's play Bug into a film in 2006), and its theatrical origins do become obvious in the way certain characters are left disconcertingly off screen; the movie is concluded with a long, slow and single-location sequence, which makes it looks oddly like a filmed stage play. There is also a bit of what screenwriters call "sexposition": that is, if you have a couple of sleazy male characters discussing something important to the plot, they might as well do it in a topless bar for the added frisson.
But for all this Friedkin and Letts don't pull their punches, and Matthew McConaughey holds the centre of the movie as a cold, cruel gourmand of violence, second only perhaps to Casey Affleck's sadistic Texas cop in Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me.
McConaughey plays Detective Joe Cooper of the Dallas Police Department, an officer who cruises around in an unmarked car, wearing dark clothes, accessorised with aviator shades and the inevitable Stetson. Cooper is to make a remarkable intervention in the lives of a dysfunctional local family, whose appallingly inadequate paterfamilias is Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), a welder of low ambition and low IQ, acrimoniously divorced from his alcoholic wife, and now living with his dubiously loyal girlfriend Sharla (Gina Gershon), who has the unfortunate habit of answering the door naked from the waist down.
Sharla is the resentful stepmother to Ansel's son Chris (Emile Hirsch), a failed drug dealer who now owes several thousand dollars to some scary characters. Chris's sister Dottie, played by Juno Temple, still lives in the family nest, a delicate and unworldly person given to sleepwalking and sleep-talking, a condition that makes their family life anxious and surreal. Yet poor Dottie is treasured as a vulnerable soul.
Desperate for cash, Chris lets his dad in on a secret, murderous plan for easy money. Hirsch's twisted, twitching, horribly needy face lights up with joy at the thought of it, and so to some degree does his dopey father's, although Church is too intelligent a performer to play stupid with absolute conviction. They need someone who is good at murdering, and this is where Joe comes in: he augments his police pay with a sideline in contract killing and could be persuaded to take the job in return for a share of the promised payout. "Killer" Joe is unimpressed with the offer, but much taken with comely, scantily clad Dottie. Perhaps they can come to an arrangement.
McConaughey's Joe has icy intelligence and competence, and a keen sense of the art of the possible; he makes everyone else look like a child, with the exception of Dottie, who is the nearest among them to actually being a child, though she has a precocious adult awareness of exactly what is going on, and is an enthusiastic supporter of Chris's plan. Joe moves into their lives and indeed their home, like a parasitic Satan, taking charge. Once he has accepted a commission, there is no turning back, and he is clearly all too accustomed to whingey and panicky clients having second thoughts, and having to ride roughshod over their scruples.
The chaotic outcome of the plan is where the film comes most alive, with its ugly collisions of double-cross and triple-cross, and the horrible realisation that they are involved in evil, and have themselves become evil. When Dottie sees Joe first, she says that his "eyes hurt", and later she will repeat this remark to him directly, without making it clear if she means Joe's eyes are hurting himself or other people, or both. Joe does not reply to this observation, and it's a shame that their approaching intimacy rather puts a stop to poetry of this kind in the screenplay. Dottie is a version of Blanche Dubois – not a young Blanche necessarily, because of that weirdly mature self-possession, but one who welcomes the kindness of this particular stranger.
Killer Joe sets the scene for a killer noir, with some killer lines and killer characters, but Friedkin's energy and determination to wrest the story away from the stage and set it free in the cinema deserts him in the final act. It is up to McConaughey's crooked cop to carry the picture: a sleek, loungingly casual loner whose hunger for violence, like his hunger for fried chicken, is finally and horribly gratified.
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