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Trailer parks, all-night diners and strip clubs enclose the action in William Friedkin's Killer Joe, a dark , disturbing comedy that pulls no punches with its blunt, shortsighted characters and brutal violence. Friedkin again directs from a screenplay by Tracy Letts, who previously adapted his story of Southern perversion into a stage play. Killer Joe, like the pair's previous collaboration, Bug, is claustrophobic pulp. Ashley Judd's bug-infested bedroom is replaced by a crummy mobile home, where Killer Joe's players deceive and desist. Matthew McConaughey is queasily perfect as Killer Joe Cooper, a sometimes cop and morally suspect killer for hire who gets mixed up with a feuding family. Friedkin revels in his Southern-trash epic, and the line between humor and horror is hazy. Killer Joe is ugly and mean and ingenious.
There are a lot of stupid people in Killer Joe. Amateur dope dealer Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) decides the best way to repay his debts to some nasty bikers is to hire Joe to off his alky mom. Chris convinces his dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) to hop on board by promising to split his mom's life insurance policy payout when the deed is completed. Chris's devious sister Dottie (Juno Temple) overhears the discussion and gives her blessing. Ansel's new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) is also down for a quick, unearned buck. Joe is a professional, however, and requires a retainer to ensure he stays clear of trouble. Chris and Ansel are broke, so they offer up Dottie for Joe's pleasure. Joe turns out to be nuts, and intends to claim his prize over Chris's objection. Not a single character in Killer Joe has a conscience, and each seems to unconsciously one-up the others' depravity as the film rolls forward.
The Friedkin-Letts partnership has proved creatively fruitful for the 77-year-old director, whose career took a nosedive in the '90s. Friedkin clearly loved directing these characters, who manage to cling to the fringe of society despite their near-constant foolishness. Letts never judges his literary spawn, and each character remains rational in his own mind. The audience is left to cast stones and pick sides in the honorless battle. Letts says he never imagined his play could be successfully adapted for the silver screen, but Friedkin does so successfully by retaining the theatrical, talky quality of the stage production. Chris and Sharla seal their fates with unending lies and half-truths, and Friedkin lets each character talk his way into the fire.
Killer Joe was slapped with an NC-17 upon its theatrical release, and Friedkin refused to cut any of the film's lurid violence and sexuality. This is unhinged, unnerving material, and I found myself on edge as the characters came crashing together for the climactic final fried-chicken dinner scene. The film's violence is unexpected and stomach-churning; its sexual degradation unthinkable. But, it's often really funny. Even Friedkin says the humor is left to an audience to find, but Killer Joe is unmistakably a dark comedy. There is distinct pleasure to be had watching Friedkin turn his pawns loose to interact and explode. I frequently found myself asking, "Did they really just do that?" Yes, they did. And in the next scene it gets worse.
McConaughey has done much in the last few years to shed his romantic-comedy skin. The actor is ice-cold steel as Killer Joe, a man who lives by his own code of conduct and morality. His relationship with Dottie is about as appropriate as Dottie's twisted sexual games, which include telling Joe that she is twelve years old. Dottie is apparently twenty-one but acts like a child, only to reveal late in the game that she has been listening the whole time. Gershon is perfect here, and continues to play these Deep South trash characters with a surprising amount of dignity. The actress gets run through the wringer in Killer Joe, and commands attention in every scene. Hirsch and Haden Church are similarly strong, and have a strangely appealing father-son dynamic. Killer Joe will disgust many, but those with the consistency will enjoy the pulpy drama and top-notch performances.
The 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image is confined to a single-layer disc but looks quite good. Most of the film takes place inside a cluttered, cramped mobile home, and the transfer handles the shadows and grime appropriately. Close-ups reveal impressive facial detail, while wider shots are softer but retain pleasing texture. Skin tones are accurate even when lit by the neon lights of a strip club, and black levels are solid. There is some crush, likely due to the limited lighting on the crowded set, but detail is present in the darkness. The image is quite crisp and vibrant in early outdoor scenes. This "pop" is reduced somewhat in later scenes, but colors remain bold and well saturated.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is surprisingly immersive. From the rain-drenched opening to the sucker-punch finale, this mix places viewers amid the action. Dialogue is always clear, whether characters are talking from in front of the camera or behind. Effects make use of the surround speakers, and the subwoofer is used for louder action effects. English, English SDH and Spanish subtitles are included.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release is packaged in a Blu-ray eco-case, which is wrapped in a matching slipcover. The film is presented in its original, uncut version. Lionsgate includes a nice assortment of quality extras:
- Audio Commentary with Director William Friedkin - The veteran director is an enjoyable host, and talks directly to listeners. Friedkin details working with Letts on the film adaptation of the play and why he was drawn to the project. Particularly interesting are his remarks on the film's NC-17 rating and his ultimate refusal to dilute the material after the MPAA refused to grant him an R-rating.
- Southern Fried Hospitality: From Stage to Screen (25:44/HD) - This is a well-made making-of featurette with cast and crew interviews and on-set footage. The piece focuses on the origins of Killer Joe, and Gershon reveals that she passed on the stage project years ago due to the disturbing finale. Friedkin says that at minimum, Killer Joe is a film that will get people talking.
- SXSW Q&A with Cast (39:28/HD) - Ain't It Cool News' Harry Knowles hosts the principal cast in this talkback session held after the film screened at the festival. Friedkin joins via phone, and the cast answers audience questions.
- SXSW Into by William Friedkin (3:41/HD) - Since the director couldn't make the festival, he recorded an intro from Vienna to run before the film.
- "White Trash" Redband Trailer (2:43/HD) - This trailer teases the film's lurid content and trashy characters.
Killer Joe is not a universally appealing film. This Southern-trash epic from William Friedkin is populated with ugly, remorseless characters doing stupid things. The violence is brutal and shocking, but Killer Joe is often very funny. Matthew McConaughey impresses as Killer Joe Cooper, a hired gun who gets mixed up with a feuding family, including Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon. The film is adapted from Tracy Letts' stage production, and neither director nor screenwriter judges the society-skimming characters. The audience is left to decide who, if anyone, is just; something the film's infamous dinner-table climax makes difficult. Some of you will hate it; others will call it one of the year's best. Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.