MOST directors try to avoid 18 certificates, fearing it will cost them audiences and entry to polite society. William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist and The French Connection, both 18 in their day, seems to positively court the bad boys' certificate as a badge of honour.
So it is with his latest, Killer Joe, a crime drama that deserves locking up at times for its hideous violence and all-round devilment. One thing, though: you will not be bored.
Or maybe you will just a little. Adapted from a play, Killer Joe has its share of the kind of static scenes that work on stage but can strike a movie stone dead.
Just as well that Friedkin has an electrifying cast to jolt the movie back to life when circumstances require. Foremost among them is Matthew McConaughey, a very pleasant surprise recently playing Mickey Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer. Here, as the hired gun of the title, McConaughey puts in a game and career-changing performance.
Killer Joe is set in the Texas badlands, a place of small dusty towns and trailer parks filled with those clinging on, just, to the last rung of respectability. Among this socially challenged community are Sharla and Ansel Smith (Gina Gershon and Thomas Haden Church). We are introduced to Sharla in such a way as to leave no doubt that when it comes to shocking comedy, Friedkin intends to hit below the belt every time.
Ansel has two children, Chris the small-time dope dealer (Emile Hirsch) and Dottie, a teenager who walks in her sleep and seems to live in the land of the fairies. Chris owes some very mean people money, and thinks he has hit on a way to get moderately rich fairly quick. Which is where Joe, a police officer when he's not killing people, comes in.
There's a dark art involved in playing bad guys who are good to watch, and McConaughey nails it. Like Max Cady in Cape Fear, or Hannibal Lecter, Joe is a repellent beast, yet it's hard to take your eyes from him. He's so obviously a wrong 'un, but he's a fascinating wrong 'un. Just as he keeps weaker mortals under his command, so he demands attention from the audience.
It helps that McConaughey is none too shabby to look at, but his appearance is only half of it. He controls every scene he is in with the kind of quiet power De Niro used to have before his volume control became stuck at shouty.
While McConaughey is all smoothness and simmering menace, Emile Hirsch's Chris is a mess from top to toe, a lying, cheating, petty hustler. Dad and step-mother aren't much better. This family could keep social services and daytime confession shows in business from now until the end of civilisation.
If they were not such obvious grotesques, what happens in Killer Joe would be harder to accept. And what happens, make no mistake, is brutal and disturbing. If one believed these characters were in any way real, and not exaggerations piled on embellishments, the stomach would duly turn.
Friedkin pumps up the volume of the drama from the start. What begins as a low growl of menace becomes by the end a cymbals-clashing, trumpets-blaring symphony of madness. It's all so bonkers it makes Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant look like a bobble-hatted Mike Leigh special. And through most of the darkness the sun shines, this being Dallas.
Any one of this cast could hold a picture on their own. Hayden Church makes a magnificent big dumb klutz, no offence, while Hirsch scoots around the place like a demented terrier. It's the women, here, though, who do most of the heavy lifting – for good and ill. Gershon has lingered too long on TV. The big screen is the best medium to display her particular brand of dramatic gutsiness. Temple, meanwhile, has a presence belying her youth.
The other master at work here, apart from McConaughey, is Friedkin. It is hard to think of any other director who wants to work in that town called Hollywood again who would attempt this material. Or a director with the sheer confidence to put a comedic spin on an appalling series of events and such a grisly bunch of humans. This is a fearless, sometimes very funny, walk on the weird side.
Whatever else you feel about it, Killer Joe is a film to provoke reaction, judging by its screening at the opening gala at Edinburgh last week. It is not interested in compromise. Having started on a crazy road, Friedkin keeps on trucking, to the point where even the battle-hardened viewer might look away. Look away by all means, but not before seeing a gifted and original film-maker at work.