Combustible Celluloid
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With: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Marc Macaulay
Written by: Tracy Letts, based on his play
Directed by: William Friedkin
MPAA Rating: NC-17 for graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality
Running Time: 103
Date: 09/08/2011

Killer Joe (2012)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Chicken Spittle

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The problem with William Friedkin is that he was the biggest director in the world for a couple of years. The success he had with The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) in terms of critical acclaim, Oscars, and box office was unparalleled. Not even Coppola, Spielberg, or Lucas had reached that level yet. That kind of bigness can only lead to a fall. But the catch is that his downfall is mostly perceived or imagined. Even forty years later, every new release is compared unfavorably to those two successes, rather than taken upon its own merits. The truth is that Friedkin has continued with a consistently interesting career, and hardly anyone has noticed.

Well, perhaps Killer Joe will finally be the movie that bucks the trend. It's hard not to watch this explosive power punch of a movie and not love absolutely every frame. But even if it's not -- even if it doesn't make $600 million and win Best Picture -- it will still be here for a few of us who genuinely appreciate it.

Like Friedkin's last movie, the amazing Bug (2006), Killer Joe is based on a play by Tracy Letts, and adapted by same. It's clearly expanded to make use of the cinematic format, but the expansions work just fine. Emile Hirsch appears first as Chris Smith, a trailer park kid who finds himself deeply in debt with some local thugs. He comes up with a plan; he will hire a killer to bump of his mother, collect her life insurance, use half of the money to pay the killer, and then use his share to settle his debt.

Chris's mom is not shown, but Chris joins forces with his dad, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), to put his plan into effect. Ansel is remarried to Sharla (Gina Gershon), and Chris's sister Dottie (Juno Temple) lives with them. Dottie is said to be the recipient of the insurance claim. Chris and Ansel call on Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a cop who makes a side living as a hired killer, to pull off the job. Joe is not happy about waiting for his pay, so he takes Dottie as a "retainer."

I suppose it goes without saying that this plan goes awry, but does so in a most fascinating way, leading to a standoff between all five characters over a bucket of take-out chicken.

What's truly peculiar is that, though I thought I had Friedkin's signature style pegged, Killer Joe goes in a totally unique direction, as if it were a fresh start, a debut film. At 76, Friedkin turns in the work of a 26 year-old. Killer Joe is ferocious and alive in ways that very few movies ever are today. (It's the best Quentin Tarantino movie that Tarantino never made.) Friedkin revels in the sound of Letts' dialogue, as well as the sounds of thunder and lightning, a metallic lighter, a dog barking, and racecars revving on a television set. There's a foot chase between blasted-out, graffiti-covered buildings that's every bit as furious and tense as Friendkin's best car chase scenes, in The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and Jade (1995).

The movie is lean and mean, and casually accepts its NC-17 rating for shocking gore and sexuality that just keeps escalating, well past the point you think it's going to stop. And yet the buildups are just as satisfying as the payoffs; we savor every moment, and can't wait to go back and savor it some more.

It goes without saying that this cast is remarkable, with McConaughey continuing his winning streak begun in Richard Linklater's Bernie and Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike. Church has his best role since Sideways and Gershon her best role since Bound. Temple has her best role, period, and Hirsch becomes bearable for the first time. McConaughey comes out the best, with Temple lending an ethereal, luminous presence; they are very clearly enchanted and intrigued by one another, and their quiet, talking scenes are as captivating as any of the more shocking stuff.

No doubt about it: Killer Joe is a triumph of the kind that Coppola, Spielberg, or Lucas could never have pulled off today. It belongs on the list of Friedkin's greatest achievements, alongside The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer (1977), To Live and Die in L.A., and Bug, making an even half-dozen masterworks. Don't miss this.
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