Killer Joe illustrates something of what I meant when I proposed it might now be better to be among those 1970s moviebrats whose fortunes have fluctuated over the decades: it leaves these directors free to do anything they choose, however far beyond Brand Spielberg or Brand Scorsese the resulting films may venture. After his heroically uncommercial filming of Tracy Letts' play Bug - a pulpy psychodrama with Michael Shannon serving early notice of his talents as a paranoiac becoming convinced the world entire, from microscopic insects to Big Government, was crawling under his skin - William Friedkin here delivers a devil-may-care adaptation of another Letts work, a thick slice of trailer-park Gothic that finds the directorial sensibility behind The Exorcist and The Ninth Configuration looking at the mainstream likes of Meet the Parents and Little Miss Sunshine and openly cackling. Hell, if you want a dysfunctional family, Friedkin seems to be saying here, I'll give you one.
Stepmom Sharla (Gina Gershon) bids us welcome to this world by throwing open the trailer door, naked from the waist down; once inside (the trailer, that is), we meet her fairly useless hubby Ansel (Thomas Haden Smith) who, along with his - for this neighborhood - wildly ambitious son Chris (Emile Hirsch), has come up with the less-than-foolproof plan to have his first wife offed in order to put her appetising life-insurance payout into his new clan's empty coffers. Cometh, at this point, the not-so-nice-man of the title, a detective-turned-hired gun (Matthew McConaughey), who - noting the family haven't two pennies to rub together - seeks alternative means of payment. This will be youngest daughter Dottie (Juno Temple), a girl so miraculously pure of heart she believes her true love may be a chubby classmate who's not so much as spoken to her.
It strikes you, around the time Dottie is disrobing for the first time in the midst of one of her brother's nightmares, that Letts may be the closest the theatre has produced to an exploitation merchant like a Corman or a Lloyd Kaufman, which may be why his work adapts so effectively as cinema (of a sort): if Bug was his freakout opus, then Killer Joe marks a gleeful plunge into the realms of sex and death. Friedkin, as ever, can barely restrain himself: the movie is composed of spitting, cussing, overhead shots peeping into girls' changing rooms, angry bikers, ugly dogs, lightning strikes, inventive uses for fried chicken and canned pumpkin, and a final bloodbath that would set anybody's grandmother and priest hastening for the exits, if they hadn't already got up and left at that first bush shot.
Needless to say, it's a livelier film than War Horse, for one - though, crucially, it does feel like a film, and never a filmed play, lifted above the prosaically ordinary by some very capable and committed performers. It's likely that, in its original incarnation, this piece became catnip for fringe actors prepared to flaunt their everything, but Friedkin fine-tunes these performances to the extent the material retains its kick and grip: it's certainly the first Haden Church outing for some time to feel, from some patchy facial hair on down, like a unified character rather than a series of sporadically inspired, honey-dipped riffs, and the film's early stages offer a welcome (and long overdue) reminder of the particular tartness of Gina Gershon, and just how the movies have delighted in mistreating this actress.
Just as Bug was unsettling rather than jump-from-your-seat scary, Killer Joe is consistently amusing without being hilariously funny. The plot feels less than the sum of its vivid characters, and Letts doesn't appear to be saying much of anything with it, save possibly making some vague gesture towards the damaging nature of greed. (It's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with T&A.) Nevertheless, as an exercise in playing with the audience - having us snigger one moment, disturbing us the next, turning us on, then grossing us out - Killer Joe remains an effective piece of work, with all the connotations of that phrase, and Friedkin manages the near-unthinkable in getting an awesomely precise and chilling performance out of an emaciated McConaughey, as a stonecold psychopath who conducts his business in the manner of a true Texas gentleman, until his patience runs out. For the longest of whiles, Friedkin seems to be taking a particular pleasure in ensuring McConaughey is just about the only actor on screen not taking his top off. That, ladies and gentlemen, really is perverse.
Killer Joe opens nationwide from Friday.