John Bleasdale Venice

Venice 2011: ‘Killer Joe’ review

★★★★☆

Memories of director William Friedkin’s former glories, specifically The Exorcist (1973) and The French Connection (1971), have made sitting through past tripe like Jade (1995) and Rules of Engagement (2000) palpably depressing. So it is with great pleasure that I can report that Killer Joe (2011), which premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival this week, is a genuinely good film, a dark to black comedy that shows something very wrong at the heart of a Texan family.

Emile Hirsch plays Chris Smith, a ne’er-do-well petty criminal and drug dealer who, on learning that his mother has stolen his stash, decides to have her bumped off. His father and new wife are in on the plan, but to carry it through they decide to hire the services of ‘Killer’ Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas detective who moonshines as a hitman. Naturally, things don’t quite go according to plan and to further complicate things, Joe nurtures an attachment for Chris’ sister Dottie (Juno Temple).

Killer Joe is based on a play by Tracey Letts, the second collaboration between director and writer following Friedkin’s 2006 film Bug. A large number of films based on stage plays have been seen at this year’s festival, with Roman Polanski’s Carnage, George Clooney’s The Ides of March and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method all taking their source material from stage productions.

Killer Joe’s scenes are long and dialogue is of a high quality; by turns funny and absurd, yet also desperately sad. Given such fantastic material to get their teeth into, the film’s cast make the very most of it. Thomas Hayden Church as Ansel, Chris’ idiotic father, provides much of the film’s comedy. This beer-swilling, amoral slob is almost to be forgiven for his other worldliness; Ansel is so stupid it almost becomes poetry. Gina Gershon, as his new wife Sharla, is almost unrecognisable under the mascara.

But it is the title role that’s going to attract the most plaudits, as Matthew McConaughey reveals some substantial previously-hidden talent. This is the kind of villainous turn that can rescue a mediocre career, even if it does come at the expense of a dozen more rom-coms. Joe’s snake-eyes stare (‘You’ve got eyes that hurt’, Dottie informs him), his slouching walk, and his well-mannered, easygoing spiel mark him as the kind of psychopathic killer who could easily step out from the pages of a Jim Thompson novel.

At the press conference following the Killer Joe screening, Friedkin was in a relaxed, borderline exuberant mood, asking for song requests and reading a long quote from Fellini’s 8½ (1963). Explaining his slow output, Friedkin pointed to the low quality of many scripts coming his way, and that he found more pleasure in directing opera – his latest to be performed in Florence this October.

Friedkin’s good mood was well-justified. Killer Joe is an exploration off the dark and savage absurdity inside a family that even Jerry Springer might think twice about talking to.

For more Venice Film Festival 2011 coverage, simply follow this link.

John Bleasdale