There was a time when a film directed by William Friedkin was met with excitement, but that was a very long time ago. It was for The French Connection (1971) that Friedkin won the Academy Award for Best Director, a brilliant and tough crime thriller based on a true story about a couple of New York narcotics officers trying to bust a massive French drug operation. Friedkin took to the streets with his cameras and gave the film a documentary-like feel, gritty and real the streets so close to us we could almost smell them, the characters like those one saw every day walking the streets of New York. The main character was Popeye Doyle, portrayed superbly by Gene Hackman in a performance that won him an Oscar as Best Actor, a cop unafraid to bend and break the rules if it means nailing the top men with the drugs. Fearless, even reckless, Doyle is single mindedly devoted to busting this ring in thousands of pieces. The film was met with rave reviews, strong box office and five Academy Awards, a Best Picture award among them.
Friedkin followed this success with The Exorcist (1973) which made film history. Based on the best-selling novel by William Peter Blatty, set to be based on two actual exorcisms, Friedkin brilliantly used the modern-day Catholic Church believed still in demonic possession and the rite of exorcism, giving the film a sense of heightened realism it might otherwise have had. Superbly acted by Ellen Burstyn, as the terrified mother of the possessed child, Linda Blair as the child, Jason Miller as a conflicted young priest, and Max Von Sydow as the exorcist, the film was unlike any horror film ever made. Scenes that left audiences reeling included the child masturbating violently with a crucifix, vomiting across the room onto the priests, levitating beds, vulgar, often horrific language being spewn like poison from the possessed child’s mouth, and the physical decline of the beautiful little girl into a demon from nightmares. Mixed reviews greeted the film, but it was a powerhouse at the box office, with lines stretching down city blocks,and the picture was nominated for ten Academy Awards after winning the Golden Globe as Best Drama. The Academy honored the film twice, best screenplay adaptation and best sound, with the top awards going to The Sting (1973). The success of the film left Friedkin in the enviable position of being to do pretty much anything he wanted, and what he wanted was to remake a classic French film entitled The Wages of Fear (1951). Colleagues, friends and studio heads begged him not to do this, advised him to find another property he wanted to make, anything but this film, but he stubbornly forged ahead. Twenty seven million dollars later, Sorcerer (1977) was released to poor reviews and terrible box office, and the director had his first bomb. Sadly his career was never the same, and William Friedkin has never made another great film or a film that came even remotely close to the success of those two classics from the seventies. Certainly his ego played a huge role in his undoing, but by the end of the seventies directors could ill afford such costly failures.
So it was with great surprise I watched Killer Joe at last years Toronto International Film Festival, interested in what Friedkin might have done with the material. He had a minor success a few years earlier with something called Bug (2008) based on a stage play, but his career had hardly reached the heights it once had attained. Two hours later I emerged from the theatre with a smile on my face, because the director had done it, he had made a good film.
Now let’s be clear. This is a good film, not a great film, and when say good, I mean good and nothing else, not award worthy, not ten best worthy, simply a good film, better than just about anything Friedkin had directed since Cruising (1980) of which I confess to admiring (grudgingly).
Chris (Emile Hirsch) is in a tough spot. Broke, desperate for money and not all that smart, he brings to his father the only manner in which he believe they can come up with some fast money. By killing his mother, they can grab her life insurance money which will allow him to settle his drug debts, and perhaps get out of their trailer park lifestyle once and for all. He even has the man to do the job, a chilly detective who moonlights as an assassin, Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). The trouble is the father and son cannot come up with the deposit needed to hire Cooper for the job. Demanding a retainer, Joe decides he will take Dottie (Juno Temple) the teen sister of Chris. Both virginal, wise beyond her years and vengeful, Dottie eventually agrees and accepts her position as Joe’s retainer, though she has plans of her own. As the bizarre plan moves forward, lurching into some very bizarre areas, Dottie and Joe develop an odd relationship that will wreak havoc on the original plan.
What works for the film is that Friedkin keeps his characters remorseless and black to the soul right through to the ending. Hirsch long ago proved he was an excellent actor with his stunning performance in Into the Wild (2007) for which he received a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Best Actor. He’s terrific here, a dim bulb, in way over his head, and too dumb to realize it. Thomas Haden Church is, as always superb as his drunken father, and Gina Gershon is excellent as the white-hot wife they want taken care of.
Best of all is Matthew McConaughey as Joe an ice-cold killer who feels nothing for his victims, in fact very little for anyone at all. The actor has dead eyes, no life in them at all, and goes about his business as just that, business. People are not people to him, but merely instruments of his commerce. Having never really lived up to the promise he displayed as the lawyer in A Time to Kill (1996) it’s nice to see the actor in a role that challenges him and allows him to do some good work.
And Friedkin. In fairness some of the film is in bad taste, yet somehow he makes that work for the story and the characters. These are really terrible people, living in a world of squalor, booze and drugs, and they do not think as we do. Anthing goes, and Friedkin makes that very real for us. Wildly entertaining, the film reminded me, in tone of Wild at Heart (1990) directed by David Lynch, in which we are invited to spend two hours with people we would never get within a thousands of in real life.