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The William Friedkin of The French Connection and The Exorcist may be but a distant memory, but Killer Joe proves that at 76 the Academy Award-winning director is certainly no back number. A likeably unpleasant slice of adults-only Texas noir, which aims at the funnybone as much as the jugular, this adaptation of Tracy Letts’ play proves better suited to a big-screen adaptation than the last Friedkin/Letts collaboration, the hysterical Bug (2006).
And with Texas’ own Matthew McConaughey in fine sardonic form as the eponymous Joe – a West Dallas detective who operates a lucrative sideline as a hitman-for-hire – the new picture certainly has stronger commercial possibilities.
But this digitally-shot indie production is overall too small-scale and insufficiently distinctive to have much of a theatrical shot in the current climate. Venice and Toronto are the first takers for what is likely to be a popular choice at festivals, where Friedkin’s name retains the prestige it’s lost among the wider public.
While his ‘70s classics retain their positions as cultural touchstones, new material from the director has been intermittent and relatively low profile. Since 2003’s flop The Hunted his only theatrical pictures have been the adaptations of Letts’ first plays – Killer Joe premiered in 1993, Bug in 1996 – though he’s also contributed episodes to smash TV hit CSI. Letts’ star, meanwhile, has risen considerably over the last couple of years thanks to his sprawlingly ambitious, Pulitzer-awarded 2007 play August: Osage County.
The playwright’s earlier works are much more tightly focused affairs, full of intense encounters in enclosed spaces. In Killer Joe the main arena is the cramped Dallas County home of auto-mechanic Ansel Smith (Thomas Haden Church) and his waitress wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) – also resident is Dottie (Juno Temple), Ansel’s daughter from a previous marriage. His alcoholic ex-wife Adele lives elsewhere with their son Chris (Emile Hirsch), whose financial woes spark and propel the plot’s various machinations.
In debt to gangsters, Chris must come up with $6,000 pronto. In desperation decides to bump off Adele for her insurance. He hires murderous lawman Joe Cooper (McConaughey), and when he’s unable to pay Joe’s fee in advance the killer proposes an unusual solution: He will have sexual access to the virginal Dottie as a “retainer.” Dottie, it turns out, is far from upset about this arrangement.
Complications predictably ensue, in a plot whose convolutions echo the books of Texas’s noirmaster Jim Thompson, whose sleazy-corrupt vibe has informed several Coen brothers outings since their debut Blood Simple. Thompson’s Pop.1280 and The Killer Inside Me center, like Letts’s play, on a lethally-inclined police officer. Like Winterbottom’s movie, Killer Joe includes sequences of uncompromisingly bloody violence – here Hirsch and Gershon are beaten to messy pulps – and these sit slightly awkwardly with the larkish tone that generally prevails.
The cast prove crucial in maintaining the material’s tricky tonal balances. McConaughey underplays with seductive, snake-like charm as the black-clad Joe, by far the most sophisticated, intelligent and capable individual on view. Haden Church nails the laughs as the lunk-headed, beer-gulping Ansel, while Gershon, particularly good here, provides much-needed energy as the sensually no-nonsense Sharla.
The younger performers fare less well – Temple, so good in sexpot roles, is appealing but miscast as an ingénue whose offbeat dialogue suggests she has some mild form of Aspergers’. Hirsch is occasionally allowed to go a little over the top as the motormouth, self-destructively misguided Chris.
Amusingly, two key characters – Adele, and her boyfriend Ray, who also happens to be “seeing” Sharla – are frequently referred to but barely glimpsed. The emphasis remains squarely on the main quartet, right up to the crackerjack finale that, whatever else Killer Joe does or does not achieve, certainly ends proceedings with a highly satisfying bang.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production company: Voltage Pictures, Ana Media
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Matthew McConaughey, Gina Gershon, Juno Temple
Director: William Friedkin
Screenwriter: Tracy Letts
Based on a play by: Tracy Letts
Producers: Nicolas Chartier, Scott Einbinder
Executive producers: Christopher Woodrow, Molly Conners, Vicki Cherkas
Director of photography: Caleb Deschanel
Production designer: Franco-Giacomo Carbone
Music: Tyler Bates
Editors: Darrin Navarro
Sales: Voltage Pictures, Los Angeles
No rating, 102 minutes