In the 1970s, director William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) was an American auteur who had Hollywood in the palm of his hand. The two aforementioned films were tremendous box office successes and brought Friedkin an Oscar for Best Director (French Connection) and a second nomination. His 1977 followup to The Exorcist—an English language remake of The Wages of Fear entitled Sorcerer—tore down the legacy that the filmmaker had built for himself. Friedkin’s ongoing reputation for clashing with his cast and crew members, his escalating budget ($22 million at the time—Star Wars cost $11 million the same year), and his audacity to remake a classic French film made the filmmaker come across as Icarus with a beret on. When the film imploded at the box office— regardless of the fact that the film’s failure had more to do with Star Wars hogging the screens than its quality—Friedkin’s career took a serious hit. The filmmaker who had directed six films across the 1970s has completed only three films in the past decade.
I provide this context not to gawk at Friedkin’s career like the aftermath of a car crash, but simply to establish the point that, given their rarity, a new Friedkin film is almost always a treat to be relished by the cinephile. His newest film, Killer Joe, is no exception to that rule. The film is a demented, neo-noir interpretation of a Grimm (or, in this case, Grim) Fairy Tale that brings to mind David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. In its neo-noir mode, the film is about a young kid named Chris (Emile Hirsch) with a gambling debt who enlists the hit man “Killer Joe” (Matthew McConaughey) to murder his mother so that his younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) can collect the life insurance settlement. When Chris cannot come up with the cash to pay Joe in advance, the killer takes the young, virginal Dottie as a retainer. This is where the film takes on its demented fairy tale quality, as it is essentially about a princess (Dottie) who is stalked by a big bad wolf (Joe) and finds a protector in her prince (Chris) . . . who is also her brother (the film alludes to incest numerous times).
While most fairy tales have the subtext of a moral code, Killer Joe does not. In fact, the entire narrative of the film subverts the morality of the family unit by continuously drawing upon betrayal as a structural mechanism. Chris and Ansel’s (Thomas Haden Church) plot to kill the matriarch of their trailer park tribe becomes complicated when Ansel’s second wife (Gina Gershon) gets sexually serviced by another man; the plot thickens further when the insurance payoff doubles, causing the family to turn on one another. The only character with a moral code is, oddly, its antagonist, Killer Joe. He establishes his rules early on and plays by them, even through the blood-soaked climax that involves a chicken leg and a climax of another sort. Yet, Joe’s moral code does not make the film that bares his name a morality tale. It’s not like Killer Joe is “The Scorpion and the Frog”; he tells these yokels what he’ll do to them right out of the gate. Is the moral simply that family is not to be trusted?
This last point is what gives me pause about the film. After all the beatings, bullets, bird blowjobs, and BBQ, what does Killer Joe provide the viewer with? On a superficial level, the film provides a great sense of place akin to Fargo (thanks to cinematography by Caleb Deschanel), some pretty dazzling and darkly funny performances by McConaughey (so far, the Come Back Kid of 2012) and Haden Church, and some extremely uncomfortable laughs. That’s not a small list of minor achievements and I don’t want the film to provide some ideologically reactionary fable. That said, the climax coupled with the violence at the end of the film beg larger questions that Friedkin and screenwriter Tracy Letts don’t answer. Perhaps Killer Joe isn’t all sound and fury signifying nothing, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you what the something is. Still, it’s nice to have Friedkin back—audaciousness and all.