I was trying to figure out how I felt about Killer Joe – the new film from director William Friedkin, which explores family mayhem, Southern-Gothic style – when I saw a pretty young woman wearing a tan hippie dress, her honey-colored hair partly covered by … a purple turban. A turban! Could there be any more divisive garment? For every fashionista who tries to convince you it's glam and outré, there are a dozen friends who will tell you it's not a good idea. It struck me that a black-comic drama like Killer Joe is – bear with me here – the turban of cinema.
It's the kind of movie that begins with a lightning storm in a trailer park, and ends, after numerous beatings and degradations, in a storm of violence. It's the kind of movie in which a sensationally dim-witted child-man named Chris (Emile Hirsch) hires Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey, excellent) – a cop who does contract murders on the side – to off his mother to pay a paltry debt, and offers his sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as collateral. The kind of movie where a leading lady (Gina Gershon) makes her entrance nude from the waist down, and later does something unspeakable with a chicken leg. To say that Friedkin and writer Tracy Letts lay it on thick would be like saying that deep-fried butter on a stick is caloric. But like deep-fried butter – an actual treat at some U.S. state fairs – just because something is excessive doesn't mean it's not true. (Letts's screenplay is based on his stage play, which was based on a true family crime in Miami.) Or not worth seeing. (The film is not my taste, but it stayed with me.)
At last September's Toronto International Film Festival – it took this long for someone to release it – Friedkin, Letts, Hirsch, Temple and Gershon came on stage to introduce Killer Joe, and played out the love-in one often sees among people who've made a twisted, turban-type picture together. Friedkin, 76, sporting a potbelly and sneakers, joshed with the audience ("Anyone who asks a stupid question is right out the door!"), and praised Letts ("the best dramatist in America"), Gershon ("Isn't she hot?"), Temple ("What a doll"), and Hirsch ("The next James Dean. Or possibly Groucho Marx"). Temple declared heatedly, "I will love Billy Friedkin 'til the day I die," and Gershon admitted that she'd turned down the play a decade ago. "I knew there was no way I could do this eight times a week," she said.
They looked like the island of misfit toys up there – Temple, a thrift-store china doll; Hirsch, a soulful sweetie; Gershon, a wisecracking moll; and Friedkin, who in a phone interview later quoted Immanuel Kant and T.S. Eliot, two names that don't come up much in studio pitch meetings. They looked like people whose natures and sensibilities gave them no choice but to live and work outside Hollywood's – and many moviegoers' – comfort zone.
"When I was making the films I'll probably be most remembered for, if I'm remembered at all," Friedkin said, referring to his (unquestionably memorable) early-1970s movies The Exorcist and The French Connection, "studio heads and filmmakers were interested in pushing boundaries, and doing challenging subject matter. They were not interested in simply putting out a steady diet of comic books and video games. The guys that inspired me, including the French New Wave and the Italian filmmakers of the '50s and '60s, were reinventing the language of cinema. I don't see that today. It's not a great climate for filmmakers who want to challenge the perceptions of an audience."
A film like Killer Joe is "very risky, no question about it," he continued. "But that's what draws me to it. I've only made 16 films in 45 years, because I'm only interested in works that challenge me. I don't have a lot of boundaries. Paraphrasing T.S. Eliot, unless you go too far, you don't know how far you can go." He believes in old-school nurturing, spending long hours talking to his actors about key moments in their lives, so he can help them recover those sense-memories for the camera; shooting only one or two takes, to keep it fresh; and creating a non-judgmental atmosphere, so they feel free to take risks.
Hirsch ignores boundaries, too, he said. We were sitting on a deliberately ratty sofa in a Toronto club; he was huddled over an illicit cigarette, showing me cellphone photos of the large, Fauve-ish oil paintings he's been making lately when he can't sleep. He has, as I mentioned, the dreamy manner of someone too gentle for this hard world, which he employs in films as diverse as Milk, Into the Wild, and Savages.
"There's not a general theme in the movies I make," Hirsch said. "I can see it would be hard to get a read on who the person behind this mask is. I think there's a part of me that's very scattered. Not just in a way of performing, but in a way of taste. I'm very much a person of moods, of places and feelings. I'm able to be enraptured with a specific thing for a period of time, and then let it go. Even my style of acting, I like to think I've changed it from movie to movie. In Speed Racer, it was meticulous, almost still. In Into the Wild, it was more improvisational and spontaneous. And in Killer Joe it's more theatrical."
Hirsch grew up "around a lot of trailer parks" in Santa Fe, N.M. and Topanga Canyon, Calif. "There were a lot of crazy dudes with their shirts off smoking cigarettes screaming their [freaking] heads off," he said. At age 6, he saw the movie that made him want to act: believe it or not, Home Alone. "I was obsessed with that movie," he said. "It's a strange thing to hear me say, I'm sure. But my parents were getting divorced, so to see Macaulay Culkin having more fun than any other kid – I was beside myself with the desire to do that. And that never really went away. There's a real catharsis for me with acting that I really enjoy. There's kind of a creative itch that I have, an artistic compulsion."
But perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Killer Joe, Matthew McConaughey, was too busy building on it to come to TIFF. His quiet control as Joe, his flinty authority, immediately reduced the drawling shirt-removal he did in his romantic comedies to prelude. I've always liked him, but what was once all abs is now a much more interesting underbelly. (See also: The Lincoln Lawyer and Magic Mike.) And it looks like this is a new direction rather than a blip: He's currently getting ghost-thin to play an AIDS sufferer who breaks open the underground market for HIV drugs in the upcoming The Dallas Buyer's Club for Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (Café de Flore.). After that he'll be The Wolf of Wall Street – for Martin Scorsese.
McConaughey hated Killer Joe when he first read it, Friedkin said: "He thought it was vile and disgusting, and he threw it away." But he came to understand the appeal, not only of the story, but also for his life. "If you're a handsome leading man, Hollywood wants you to show up, be charming, and that's it," Friedkin said. "Matthew made a fortune doing that, and could have done it for the rest of his life, like Cary Grant. But he took control of his career." He pulverized the box, exploded the envelope, and did what only true risk can do – made us see him anew.
Will Killer Joe be successful? Not financially. Was that its point? Not remotely. Wear the turban, friends. Let your freak turban fly.