Killer Joe or Why American Horror Is Dead

William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, has returned with the macabre Killer Joe, aiming to breathe life into a genre that has stagnated in Hollywood in recent years. He hasn't. Here's why.
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William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, has returned with the macabre Killer Joe, aiming to breathe life into a genre that has stagnated in Hollywood in recent years. He hasn't. Here's why.

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When Thierry Henry returned to Arsenal in January 2012, a small but significant generational gap was exposed, between the fans who had sang their way through the king's glorious goalscoring reign, and those whose memories of the player were gathered mostly from hearsay, stories and Youtube compilation videos. However, such is the pragmatism of a football fan, or maybe just the pessimism of an Arsenal fan, that the older generation were quick to temper the expectations of the younger: "He's lost a yard of pace!", "He's been out of England too long!", "He's here to teach the youngsters!". In short, romanticism was balanced with realism.

It's the same with film. Occasionally a lauded veteran director will return with a new piece of work, usually to the sound of hushed reverance at the thought that such a legend could still be working. However, it seems film critics are more willing to indulge in this romantic thought than football fans, more eager to place their idols upon pedestals, happier to hark back to a golden age rather than move with the times. Case in point: William Friedkin's "Killer Joe".

William Friedkin will forever go down in the annuls of cinema history, there's no denying that. Not only did he make The Exorcist, a textbook exercise in tension, tone and subtlety, but The French Connection bagged a hatful of Academy Awards at a time when Academy Awards still meant something, and also he directed one of the final episodes of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Hitchcock Hour", thereby working with arguably one of the founding fathers of contemporary cinematic language.

Friedkin is now 76, and to get a new, high profile film from him, especially one which seems to be singing from the same hymn sheet as his earlier work, gives a contemporary cinema audience the chance to experience a direct connection to a veritable golden age of cinema that perhaps they will have only experienced retrospectively, much like those young Gunners who watched Henry come on against Leeds in the FA Cup. However, this is where the comparison ends, because while Henry scored in that game, Friedkin's "Killer Joe" sails high, wide and handsome, simply not standing up to his best work.

So it goes, Chris's (Emile Hirsch) mother has stolen his last two ounces of cocaine, which he needed to sell in order to pay back some scary men who wouldn't think twice about wrapping a crowbar around his head. Coincidentally, he has just been informed about a hitman working in the Dallas police department named Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), or Killer Joe, as well as a lucrative life insurance policy on his mother's head. He and his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), now re-married, hatch a plan to hire Killer Joe to dispose of his mother, then use the insurance money to pay him, splitting the rest between the family, which would importantly enable younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) to go to a good school.

Unfortunately it seems as if Killer Joe is the latest in a long line of English language horror films that comes up short, and I'm beginning to wonder whether the genre will ever return to it's peak

The problems arise when Joe asks for Dottie as a retainer, given that his payment will only be forthcoming upon the receipt of the life insurance policy. Chris is faced with a dilemma, needing the money to clear his debt but unwilling to pimp out his sister, for whom he holds maybe too fierce a torch.

It has to be said that Matthew McConaughey is excellent throughout, proving that he's not all rom-coms and underwear adverts. He is the perfect villain, charming yet reptillian, kindly yet menacing, serene and yet clearly with a fuse about to blow. Juno Temple too is excellent as the wistful, angelic yet slightly disturbed Dottie, reminiscent of Sissy Spacek in Terence Malick's tour de force "Badlands". However, where these two shine, Emile Hirsch fails to even draw a spark. Laboured and wooden throughout, he is the weak link in this film.

Also, and it pains me to say this, but Friedkin is not on top form behind the lens. Shots dip in and out of focus, editing is clunky and conventional cinematic rules are flouted, and rather than creating an unsettling or ominous atmosphere as can often be the case, here the film just looks sloppy. The pacing of the film is all wrong too. If you think about The Exorcist, it is so brilliant because of how slow and brooding it is, allowing us to properly invest in the characters. Tension is then derived through our empathising with them. Here it seems as though the film is in such a rush to introduce the title character and set the wheels of the story in motion that there's little time dedicated to who these people actually are, and so any attempts made to create tension are found wanting. Simply put, you can't empathise with someone when you don't know who that someone is.

Unfortunately it seems as if Killer Joe is the latest in a long line of English language horror films that comes up short, and I'm beginning to wonder whether the genre will ever return to it's peak in the English language. In recent years we've had excellent horror / thriller movies from abroad, particularly The Devil's Backbone, Julia's Eyes and Funny Games, but I genuinely can't think of the last great American or British horror film, one that could stand up against The Exorcist, The Shining or Halloween. Maybe it's just harder to scare a contemporary cinematic audience nowadays, given that we witness horrific real life footage on the news or the internet nearly every day, or maybe it's just that the huge financial success of franchises like Saw and Final Destination have led to other movie makers following suit by making horror films that go for the cheap scare or the gross-out moment. William Friedkin is better than that, and frankly, he's much, much better than this.

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