We tend to speak in the past tense when discussing the works of great filmmakers, even if they're still alive and active late in their careers. But every once in a while, a veteran director will surprise us by refusing to mellow with age, turning out a movie that's every bit as ambitious, audacious, and daring as his early efforts. William Friedkin accomplishes just such a move in Killer Joe, a funny, unapologetically bizarre, and at times shocking adaptation of Tracy Letts' pulpy stage play. And with a powerhouse cast to back him up, the result is a film that will leave you speechless.
Chris (Emile Hirsch) is in serious trouble. He's just incurred a major debt to Digger Soames (Marc Macaulay), and when you're late paying Digger, you can wind up dead. His back against the wall, Chris goes to his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) with a sinister proposition: They'll hire a killer to get rid of Chris' mother (and Ansel's ex-wife), then collect the insurance money that will go to Chris' teenage sister Dottie (Juno Temple), a seraphic sleepwalker who seems to exist in a world all her own. After bringing Chris' temperamental stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) in on the hustle, the young deadbeat and his dim-witted father enlist the services of Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a local cop whose authority and detailed knowledge of police procedures make him the perfect hired killer. But Joe doesn't come cheap, and when his fee proves bigger than expected, Chris and Ansel agree to let him have Dottie as a "retainer" until the insurance check clears. Just when it starts to look as if everything is going according to plan, however, an unexpected complication plunges the entire situation into total chaos.
The first thing that grabs you about Killer Joe is Letts' punchy dialogue. A vivacious mix of plot-propelling quips and telling barbs, it possesses a unique cadence and rhythm that, set against the backdrop of Friedkin's brazenly cinematic imagery, immediately immerses us in a world of desperate, double-crossing lowlives and ruthless killers. And the actors handle it with the skill of seasoned pros: As the slow-witted father/son duo hungering for a big payday, Hirsch and Haden Church share a tragicomic rapport that keeps us laughing with nervous energy as their "perfect" crime slowly unravels. Gershon smolders as Ansel's trashy, oversexed wife Sharla, a boozy floozy who doesn't think twice about answering the door without pants. In the hands of any other actress, the ethereal Dottie could have easily thrown the entire equation off balance, yet the talented Temple portrays her with a compelling mix of vulnerability and transcendental wisdom. And with just a single onscreen appearance in the entire film, Macaulay's Digger Soames is evil personified -- a genial psycho who might buy you a beer one day, and bury you the next.
But make no mistake, this is McConaughey's show though and through. Even in a career marked by eccentric characters, Joe Cooper is one of the most memorable; by injecting a potent shot of menace into the unsettlingly polite, coolly measured detective, McConaughey always keeps the audience off guard. We never doubt the fact that Cooper is in complete control even after the plan spirals into disarray, and once we finally witness the true depths of his twisted sadism in the final act, it's enough to send more sensitive viewers running for the exits.
Having previously collaborated on the 2006 thriller Bug, Friedkin and Letts prove especially proficient at complementing one another's strengths to create a world that's entirely convincing on its own terms. The characters, setting, and dialogue have all been honed to hyperstylized perfection, thrusting the viewer directly into the story from the rain-soaked opening shot (courtesy of five-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel), and holding us captive straight through to the brilliant last line -- one that's sure to frustrate as many as it fascinates. But the beauty of Killer Joe is that even if you hang on every word, you're still bound to miss some of the subtle nuances that make the film such a ferociously tense and funny affair, ensuring that subsequent viewings of this finger-lickin' black comedy will be even more rewarding for those brave enough to go back for seconds.