The film holds together like a concrete bunker and doesn't put a foot wrong. It's tight as teen vagina, never outstays its excesses, and builds to a superb climax. Its imitators are many, but none have remained as potent.
Then there's Sorcerer, the stupendously stellar remake of the French Wages of Fear, or, if you like, Friedkin's take on the original Georges Arnaud novel. This is what suspense is all about. A bunch of outcasts haul a truck filled with bottles of nitro-glycerine across a mountain pass that you'd be crazy to ride a bike along, let alone gun a truck. The beauty of the piece is the way Friedkin layers the book's existential explorations into hair-raising suspense sequences. With Tangerine Dream throbbing on the soundtrack, we're plunged into a pitiless hell from which there is no escape. The film is Friedkin's Fitzcarraldo, and one can't help but compare its tone to that of filmmaker Werner Herzog and his best work. Any way you look at, the criminally neglected (on video) Sorcerer is, like The Exorcist, cinema of deep immersion.
Although celebrated (rightly) for his gritty The French Connection, an even better film, in my opinion, is his To Live and Die in LA, the surprising, stunning, and brutally unforgettable tale of LA criminals and the LA cops who become criminals in order to net them. Made as a $9 million indie production, it makes no Hollywood concessions to its anti-hero's fate and drops us into a totally believable world that is both attractive at gut level and repulsive. Featuring sexual intrigue, one of the greatest car chases ever committed to celluloid, Willem Dafoe as a villain equal to Dennis Hopper's 'Frank' in Blue Velvet, and enough double-crosses and wild plot turns to fuel a hundred imitators, it is the purest of cinema, a moving convention of invention and stylistic improvisation. Though often imitated, its mix of the gritty and the slick hasn't been equaled.
Fortunately, Killer Joe, based on a stage play I haven't seen or read by Tracy Letts, shows evidence of a Friedkin re-emerging fully from his comfortable Hollywood cocoon. Still, its joys are somewhat discounted by the expectations he's built with the above three masterpieces, in addition to other works of disturbing greatness such as Cruising and its thematic companion piece, The Boys in the Band.
Joe's straightforward plot gives Friedkin room to let his character's breathe, and I didn't find myself thinking the film was stagey or too enclosed, even though the drama is close-up, intimate and bloody. Emile Hirsch, in debt to some unforgiving types, hatches a plan to pay off his debt by murdering a close family member. The sparks fly from this scenario. Mathew McConaughey, a dirty cop, also gets involved in the killing plot, but loses his focus when his dick begins pointing at Hirsch's little sister. It's a classic noir set-up, and, for me, it felt like the tonal sibling of last year's Jim Thompson thriller, The Killer Inside Me, a film I liked quite a bit more. Why? Immersion, brother. The Killer Inside Me buried you in its bloody womb. Got you all sticky and bothered. It was raw and ferocious cinematic intercourse.
Killer Joe, despite its grit and brutality and fine performances, remains strangely aloof. I was outside looking in. I had a good set of binoculars, but I couldn't touch it. Friedkin's positioning wouldn't let me.
It was impossible not to touch Sorcerer, To Live and Die, The Exorcist or Cruising. We were in the belly of those beasts. That's why I say it's hard to watch a new Billy Friedkin film: You're too aware of where he's taken you before. You're riding with him because you want him to take you there again. You're a little crestfallen when he doesn't. History's a bitch.