Up until the chicken scene, I thought William Friedkin let this tale of a white trash family hatching murder play out with surprising restraint; he trusts in the script and lets the performances do their work.
There are warning signs, of course; Juno Temple’s slightly touched innocent is more of a plot device than a character, given to kooky utterances such as “Your eyes hurt”. And Emile Hirsch, as her deeply in debt brother who thinks he has the brains but only has enough to self-destruct, is a character we’ve seen a few too many times before. But there’s something compelling about the banality of the moral vacuum in which they exist. Hirsch and his rather dense father (a superb Thomas Haden Church) have no qualms about employing a hitman to murder their mother/ex-wife, and are similarly unconflicted about trading Temple to the titular character in lieu of payment for the contract killing.
Rounding out the main cast are Gina Gershon as Church’s current wife, and she’s as good as you expect her to be, and Matthew McConaughey as Joe. It’s a gift of a role for McConaughey, and may prove to be as career defining in its way as Frank Booth did for Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. Although it has to be said that, while it’s clear that he accepts the job through weakness, it’s a tad unbelievable that a cop/hit man would be so relaxed about the number of witness to his deeds.
The characters are quirky and involving enough that when the more noirish plot twists arrive, they’re an added bonus. But the chicken incident is where the film teeters on the brink of suspension of disbelief and finally plunges into showboating. Friedkin seems to be aiming for some kind of queasy comedy of the absurd, but I don’t think he has much of a sense of humour. The rest of the film didn’t really work for me, certainly not in the way that, say, Lynch could milk the weirdness to disturbing and simultaneously amusing effect. What you end up with is a disconnect with the characters and bludgeoning violence that pulls you out of the film. In retrospect, it makes the occasional heightened touches that might support a supernatural reading (the sister’s possible clairvoyance, the dog incessantly barking in the rain outside the family’s mobile home that falls silent whenever devilish Joe arrives at the door) seem just as heavy-handed.
There always seemed to be something of a sadistic side to Friedkin, both from reports of his behaviour on sets and the subject matter he has a predilection for. Killer Joe reinforces that; you get the sense that he’s really getting a kick out of the sleaze and squalor.