Killer Joe is brutal, pulpy and utterly, irresistibly lurid — provided, that is, you like your perversity when it’s deep-fried and extra crispy.
The second collaboration between director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) and Tulsa-born playwright Tracy Letts — their first being 2006’s Bug — this work serves up trailer-trash noir as savage as it is savagely funny.
Not that all audiences will get the joke. Letts’ first play rolls around in the muck, and Friedkin isn’t one to shy away from pushing boundaries. Violent and gleefully depraved, the movie earns an NC-17 rating, especially for an almost unbearable third act that offers a twisted take on a fried-chicken dinner.
Killer Joe’s over-the-top aesthetic is evident from the start. In the midst of a furious thunderstorm, a lowlife drug dealer, Chris (Emile Hirsch, Milk), pounds on the door of the double-wide trailer belonging to his drunkard father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church, John Carter), and slutty stepmother, Sharia (Gina Gershon, Showgirls), demanding to be let in. Sharia finally opens the door wearing nothing from the waist down, portending the hairy storyline that follows.
Chris explains to his dad that he’s in debt to a local crime boss and unable to pay it back because his mother, Ansel’s ex-wife, stole the stash of cocaine he’d been planning to sell.
As a backup, Chris proposes that they hire a contract killer to murder the mother for her whopping $50,000 life insurance policy. The woman’s sole beneficiary is Dottie (Juno Temple, The Dark Knight Rises), Chris’ younger sister who lives with Ansel and Sharia. Ansel, who appears to be as smart as spittle, thinks it sounds like a good plan.
They turn to hit man Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, Magic Mike), who runs his unsavory side business when he’s not on the job as a Dallas police detective. A coolly professional psychopath, Joe tells the father-son conspirators that they must first fork over his $25,000 fee, which they don’t have.
Just when it looks like the deal is off, Joe gets another look at the virginal Dottie outfitted in Daisy Dukes and with a mop of blonde hair piled atop her head. Joe is willing to negotiate a retainer in return for “dating” Dottie. Chris and Ansel readily agree.
Family loyalty, one might surmise, is in short supply in the scuzzy universe of Killer Joe. Intelligence isn’t much of a commodity, either, with characters whose greed is rivaled only by their stupidity. That directive doesn’t make things easy on Hirsch, a smart actor who seems too sharp to be entirely convincing as Chris.
The rest of the cast is superb. Temple aptly channels the woman-girl spirit of Carroll Baker from the Tennessee Williams-penned Baby Doll. Church makes a perfect lunkhead while Gershon turns in a fierce — and unquestionably fearless — performance.
But McConaughey is a revelation.
His steely-eyed psycho, coming on the heels of strong showings earlier this year in Bernie and Magic Mike, taps into a well of menace that the actor doesn’t usually get to explore when he’s traipsing around shirtless in subpar romantic comedies. McConaughey is charismatic, terrifying and downright funny.