William Friedkin has made a career by pushing the artistic envelope with his films. “The Exorcist” which is arguably his most known film has several scenes in that film that are still shocking to this day. His latest film, “Killer Joe”, again pushes the cinematic envelope in unrated fashion with a tale of despicable, dumb people trying to plan something that is too far over their heads. It isn’t all Friedkin pushing the shock button though. The unrated portion does have help largely from screenwriter Tracy Letts who adapted the screenplay from his own play.
Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) owes the local muscle in his small Texas town six grand which he just can’t seem to get his hands on and he is running out of time. He lives in a trailer with his dad Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church), Ansel’s new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) and Chirs’s 21 year old child-like sister Dottie (Juno Temple). After finding out that Dottie is the sole beneficiary of their real absent mom’s life insurance policy Chris devises a plan to hire a cop (Matthew McConaughey) who also secretly doubles as a hitman for hire to kill their mom. The whole family is onboard with the plan and when Chris and Ansel meet Joe for the first time they see that he is methodical and has strict rules he plays by and doesn’t break. His ‘paid in advance’ rule does not work for the Smiths who intended to pay him with the payout from the insurance policy. Joe has other plans and they involve holding Dottie as a retainer until the payment comes through. From there, things do not go according to plan and Joe’s malevolence takes over.
From the first visual of the film when a powerful lightning strike fills the sky and violent thunder explodes omnipresently, the tone is set. It is going to be a tumultuous ride. Friedkin employs many methods to leave the audience in an uneasy state. In the trailer park, the neighbor’s mean-looking dog that is chained up outside is constantly barking whenever anyone pulls up. Another interesting bit is that characters, Joe especially, are regularly turning off TV’s in order to get people’s attention focused. It happens a handful of times and it is poignant each time. It is like he is saying that you need to kill the TV so you can see real life happening at the present time.
Friedkin does a fantastic job creating the world of this family. It comes off as authentic, especially Temple’s Dottie character. Her dialogue and mannerisms are fully embodied creating a character that is simple living in a closed world. For example, when she meets Joe for the first time, they are alone in her trailer. Because he a cop, she looks at him as if he is a superstar. She only knows of police officers from what she has seen on television. Joe is smitten with her innocence and her beauty and they seem to have a real connection even though they nothing about each other. Everything that happens inside the trailer throughout the film feels like a play. It is a confined space with many extended takes of dialogue and movement. The outside world is filmed cinematically which is good at representing how different the two environments are.
I would argue to say this is Matthew McConaughey’s best performance to date. Usually he tends to play every character the same way by being a laid back charmer who bumbles into adventures. Here, he still retains the usual charm but it is infused with a chaotic hunger that he has not shown before. There was perhaps an inkling of this in the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” film he did but this is a much more mature performance. He plays it slow and gentle even though he is a cold man of evil doings. It is hard not to fall for his charms when they seem so genuine. In the extras, Friedkin said that casting for the role of Joe was a tricky situation. The audience needed a previously positive rapport with the actor so they wouldn’t be turned off by the character at first.
The rest of the cast is equally as good. Emile Hirsch is great as Chris even though it seems like he is playing Leonardo DiCaprio playing the character. There is an uncanny similarity in the way they act. This actually makes him a likable character even though his moral compass isn’t pointing in the right direction. Thomas Hayden Church is channeling a southern Lowell from his “Wings” days with nice effect. Juno Temple boldly plays Dottie. Most of the props have to go to Gina Gershon’s performance especially during the infamous chicken leg scene. It’s a brave moment and she admittedly said she turned down the role a couple of times due to that scene in the script alone. The creators were hell-bent on having the scene so that could show how twisted Joe is.
The 1080p 1.85:1 presentation of “Killer Joe” is simply gorgeous. There are many night scenes and the black levels hold up quite nicely. Much of the movie takes place inside of a dark and dingy trailer which does not really get a chance to show too much fine detail. However, during close ups and when the camera steps outside into the Texas daylight, the image becomes eye-popping. Interestingly, there are several shots that seem to go out of focus throughout the film but this seems to be a stylistic choice.
From the opening of the flicking of a zippo lighter, you can tell the DTS HA MA 5.1 audio is going to be something special. Every little sound is crisply detailed. This is mostly a talky affair but there are scenes full of thunder, rain and ambient music, all of it utilizing every speaker and sounding terrific. LFE has several chances to flex its muscle nicely. Dialogue is realistic and always clear to understand This is one of the best sounding mixes out there.
The first extra in a commentary track by director William Friedkin. He has a wealth of historical knowledge and shares it freely. He goes in depth into the creation of the film and the play from which it was adapted from. “Southern Fried Hospitality: From Stage to Screen” is a nice look at the production talking with the playwright Letts and the rest of the cast. There are some interesting moments with the actors talking some of the emotionally taxing scenes from the movie. The next extra is a Q&A with the cast at SXSW. The chicken leg scene is the topic du jour but it does finally open up to other interesting topics. Last is the red band trailer for the film.
“Killer Joe” is a dark yet funny film about reaping what you sow from a director that has the ability to unnerve you in the classiest possibly ways. Friedkin take a story or depraved individuals and shoves their world into the open. You are not always sure who you’re routing for and when it’s over it is hard not to think about what you just saw. The Blu-ray disc boasts exceptional audio and video. There are a handful of interesting extras delving deeper into the genesis of the film. Recommended for Friedkin fans and people who like a lot of dark sprinkled onto their comedies