I don’t know about you, but I’ve been waiting for Matthew McConaughey to slip into the skin of a noir character. He’s done all these silly rom-coms and whatnot, but I always knew he would be a perfect fit for noir. He has an undeniable sense of danger bubbling under his hunky exterior, and it wouldn’t be too big of a stretch for him to enter the realm of darkness.
Well, that’s exactly what he’s done in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (2012). Taken from a play by Tracy Letts (who also scripted), it’s a terrifying journey deep into the heart of redneck noir. Emile Hirsch (channeling Leonardo diCaprio) owes a few thousand bucks to local bookies, who are about to take it out of his hide. Of course, he doesn’t have anywhere near that much, nor does his father, played to dim-bulb perfection by Thomas Haden Church. They decide to hire a hitman to kill someone (no spoiler) for the insurance money. Enter McConaughey.
From the moment he steps out of his black sedan, decked out in black leather jacket and gloves, black ten-gallon, and aviator shades, you know he was born to play noir. All soft voice and steely presence, he intimidates everyone around him. His character, while worlds removed from the trailer trash that populates the rest of the movie, feels like he stepped out of a Jim Thompson novel at the very depths of Thompson’s own inner turmoil. Where the character could have easily drifted off into cliché, McConaughey makes him breathe.
As for the rest of the cast, they all give pitch-perfect performances, right down to the smallest roles. Especially noteworthy in a small role is Marc Macaulay as the local godfather, being chauffeured around in a pickup truck and engaging in lots of small talk before getting down to business.
Juno Temple, whom I had never heard of before this film, is right on the money as a baby-doll-type waif, growing up in a ratty trailer park with absolutely no future. She almost makes the viewer feel like a voyeur, so realistic is her portrayal of Hirsch’s sister, Dottie. Gina Gershon, who I feel has never received the recognition due her, shows again how perfect she is for these neo-noirs. Recalling her strong performances in Bound and Three Way, she delivers again, this time as Sharla, Church’s sexpot wife.
There are two remarkable scenes in this film, the likes of which I’ve never seen before. One involves people sitting down to a dinner of Kentucky Fried Chicken takeout, and believe me, you have no idea where it will end up. The other is a breathtaking sex scene, which is without question one of the most erotic scenes ever put on film.
Director William Friedkin shows he hasn’t lost his touch after all these years. He shows here how fully he understands film noir with his lighting, his perfect choice of locations, and the mileage he gets out of the actors. The claustrophobic scenes inside the trailer made me want to run home and take a shower.
If you even think you like film noir, you owe it to yourself to go see Killer Joe. You won’t soon forget it.