I was with Killer Joe right up until the very end. For the first 95%, it held me tight in its grip: another brilliant collaboration between playwright Tracy Letts and director William Friedkin. The former brings the juicy hard-boiled dialogue, while the latter makes the story feel cinematic rather than canned theater. It’s a wild ride from the get-go… which makes its badly misplayed finale all the more disappointing. Hit the jump for my full review.
It’s not surprising that the same scene caused so much controversy during the film’s theatrical release: it earned a dreaded NC-17 rating which consigned it to box office oblivion. I respect Friedkin’s willingness to stick by his guns and release the film as he wished it. But the scene’s brutality feels very calculated: aiming to shock us rather than stay true to what precedes it. His off-kilter direction irritates more than it unsettles, a sharp contrast from his assured hand throughout the rest of the film. And the big revelation stinks of soap-opera desperation: the filmmakers resort to a fade-to-black rather than developing their would-be bombshell the way it needs. It can’t find any steak beneath the sizzle, and in the process turns a solid piece of Texas noir into a meaningless geek show.
It hurts even more because of the 95 minutes preceding it: a nasty, clever murder scheme drenched in black humor and bolstered by a fine bevvy of performers. Things start with low-rent criminal Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), deep in debt to the local drug lord and willing to do anything to pay it off. He and his alcoholic father (Thomas Haden Church) decide to have his mother murdered in order to collect the insurance money on her. But they gotta do it right: this is no place for amateurs. Enter Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas policeman who sidelines as a contract killer. There’s only one problem: they don’t have enough money for his up-front fee. Luckily (if that’s the word), he takes a shine for Smith’s mentally challenged sister (Juno Temple), and suddenly a very simple equation gets the pear-shaped twist we were waiting for.
Friedkin revels in the neo-noir absurdities of these dipshit criminals: the way a pair of leg-breakers explain that their boss “really likes” the guy they’re about to beat senseless, for instance, or how much flesh-and-blood family members can truly despise each other. He doesn’t exploit the sleazier aspects. Instead, he steps back and observes, letting the characters cheerfully hoist themselves on their own petard without embellishing the specifics. No one understands that tone better than McConaughey, who turns in one of those brilliant buttoned-down freak show performances that reminds us how talented he can be. The film purrs like a kitten from the start, and as the conspirators half-baked scheme goes increasingly wrong, its glorious pleasures only get better and better.
That makes the last-act wall they hit all the more frustrating. Having painted themselves into a corner, the filmmakers respond by basically dropping the whole thing, settling for cheap theatrics when they really need a brilliant flourish. The final scene has the distinction of being different, though without more substance, it can’t capitalize on that difference. (Please forgive me for being coy about its contents; I may not like the scene, but others will certainly disagree and have no wish to ruin the experience for them). No matter how great the set-up, you still have to stick the landing, a fact that Killer Joe makes abundantly, tragically clear.
The good news for fans and potential fans is that the Blu-ray provides plenty of solid support material. Most of it comes from a Q&A led by Harry Knowles at the SXSW film festival. Knowles obsesses way too much about the conclusion (he dug it a lot more than I did), but the cast and crew provide illumination and humor in spades. The Blu-ray also includes solid audio commentary from Friedkin and the red band trailer. Sadly, it doesn’t contain the R-rated version of the film, which presumably sheds light on the MPAA’s prudishness, and would have given more squeamish fans a viable alternative. (There’s an R-rated version on DVD for those who feel the need.)