After the one-two punch of The French Connection and The Exorcist in the early 1970s, William Friedkin was on top of the world. The writer/director was right up there with Francis Ford Coppola; Friedkin had critical favor and commercial appeal. Coppola brought class to mob movies with The Godfather, while Friedkin brought art to the box office by introducing a gritty, grainy naturalism to genre films.
It’s been 40 years since The Exorcist, and those years have not been kind to Friedkin. Or, rather, Friedkin has spent those years being unkind to audiences. His resume since 1973 has been riddled with nonsense like Deal of the Century, Blue Chips (Shaquille O’Neal’s film debut), David Caruso’s career-killing Jade, Rules of Engagement, and the surprisingly disappointing The Hunted. (The latter somehow managed to botch the pairing of Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro.) Each movie squandered Friedkin’s talent.
The director’s latest, Killer Joe, continues that downward trend, and with any luck it will be the last we hear of William Friedkin. The film, based on a play by Tracy Letts, is about a poor Texas family that hires a corrupt cop to kill their mother for her life insurance policy so they can pay off a ruthless local gangster. The Smith family’s neat little plan turns messy when they find insurance money harder to collect than they’d expected, and the cop, sociopathic Joe, takes the family’s youngest daughter, Dottie, (Juno Temple, the movie’s only bright spot) in lieu of payment.
The film has a great premise, actually, full of opportunities for clever double-crosses, incestuous jealousies, bursts of both calculated and spontaneous violence, sexual deviance, and all manner of Freudian and biblical trauma. In more capable directorial hands—say, those of the Coen brothers—the film could have been a celebratory bit of black-comic nihilism, full of cheap, scuzzy thrills at the expense of small-time crooks way out of their depth.
But some time after shooting To Live and Die in L.A., which was released in 1985, Friedkin misplaced whatever talent he had for scuzzy thrills and grainy naturalism and replaced it with a hack’s clumsiness. Nothing in Killer Joe suggests it was made by someone who’s ever directed a movie before, much less 18 films. Not its clichéd, straight-to-video bayou-noir score (complete with jazzy acoustic bass and bluesy slide guitar); not its comically tone-deaf performances (someday someone will have to explain to me the career of Thomas Haden Church); and definitely not its made-for-TV action sequences. The weak action scenes are particularly unforgivable coming from the man who directed The French Connection.
But the real problem with Killer Joe lies in the performance of its star. Born to play good-natured stoners and shirtless beach bums, Matthew McConaughey is constitutionally incapable of generating the kind of menace necessary to inhabit an amoral monster capable of murdering an innocent woman for money. McConaughey could not have been more poorly cast if Friedkin had hired him to play Winston Churchill. What makes McConaughey’s performance so maddening is that Killer Joe is the kind of character—psychosexual sociopath with a flair for the theatrical—that Dennis Hopper and Robert DeNiro feasted on in Blue Velvet and Cape Fear, respectively. It’s an actor’s dream role, a free pass to chew the scenery. Killer Joe should be a force of both attraction and repulsion, sex tinged with real peril.
McConaughey, though, has neither flair nor danger nor menace. He has no gift for conveying the psychological stew that results when bloodlust and ordinary lust intermingle. So by the time the cast has gathered in the Smith’s small trailer home for the requisite calling-in-of-debts climax, I was too turned off by all the arbitrary degradation and too amused by the absurdity of Lett’s script to take any of it seriously, or to care what happened. There’s an extended bit of forced sexual activity with a piece of fried chicken that may be the low point of Gina Gershon’s career—a career, remember, that includes the universally panned Showgirls. In another scene, McConaughey asks a victim, “Do you want me to wear your face?” It’s said with the kind of labored gravity such a line could never bear. The killings that end Friedkin’s movie are the height of cinematic cynicism—the desperate, ultra-violent, meaningless gasp of a director who was once a real filmmaker but now relies on shock value.