William Friedkin’s Killer Joe is a film of extremes, pushing forward with the intent of stretching the envelope further and further — until all hell brakes loose, and we’re left with a KFC chicken-bone that nobody, regardless of how stupid or disgracefully hick-like he or she may be, should ever be forced to eat. As scripted by accomplished American playwright Tracy Letts, working from his own 1993 stage play of the same title, Killer Joe rises above the trashily inconsequential outline of its narrative and becomes something smarter, dirtier, and more abrasively absorbing than it has any basic right to be.
Coming off a terrific performance in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, Matthew McConaughey stars as the titular lawman, and in terms of showcasing the range that has been overlooked far too often throughout McConaughey’s career, the timing of this release couldn’t be better. He’s every bit as darkly charismatic as he is in Magic Mike, and yet’s he working in an entirely different pitch. When you expect him to blow up, he quiets down, never fully disclosing what’s going on in that head of his. With a lesser lead performance, the film’s flashes of outburst wouldn’t be as grotesquely shocking — and, perhaps more importantly, neither would the flashes of hushed silence.
Joe (McConaughey), who supplements his work as a Dallas detective by killing for money, is approached by Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), a dead-beat drug dealer who ends up wanted by a pack of reputable thugs after losing track of a pricy cocaine stash. You can get an accurate sense of the film’s tone by noting the wording of Marc Macaulay’s threat to Hirsch’s Chris: “I’m going to wrap you up in electrician tape and bury you in a coffin about ten feet deep.”
With the good-for-nothing support of his family — which includes his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), Ansel’s slimy second wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon), and his virginal sister, Dottie (Juno Temple) — Chris asks Joe if he wouldn’t mind offing his own mother, Ansel’s previous wife, so the remaining Smiths can split her insurance-policy benefits and Chris can pay off the murder-happy hounds who are hot on his tail.
But Chris, completely reliant on the income that would result immediately after his mother’s death, is unable to fulfill Joe’s demand of being paid in advance. When Joe sets eyes on Dottie’s airy innocence, however, he’s rather quick in coming up with a solution of his own — he wants to possess Dottie until Chris can literally hand him the money. Chris is naturally resistant to this idea at first, knowing all too well the specifics of Joe’s warped intentions, but do you really expect a guy who’s already open to the notion of having his own mother killed to put things on hold when all he has to do is offer up his sister’s virginity?
Cleverly, then, Friedkin and Letts use that potentially film-killing plot-point and turn it in to the very thing that makes Killer Joe legitimately good, rather than merely gut-bustingly entertaining. Ansel, Chris, and Sharla are mostly on the same plane of existence, which is a polite and opaque way of saying that they’re all muddy imbeciles. Dottie and Joe, however, are unique personalities, both emanating a mysteriousness that makes their relationship lethally engrossing. The scene in which Joe first beds Dottie — which, needless to say, is something most filmmakers would’ve mishandled — is one of the film’s best, because Friedkin shows us the whole thing. Through the film-elevating acting of McConaughey and Temple, we’re introduced to a unique romantic pulse that adds a cryptic, almost spiritual backbone to events that could otherwise be written off as belligerent junk.
The film was shot by Caleb Deschanel, who’s worked with Friedkin before (2003′s The Hunted), and I appreciate how conscious his framing is of the film’s interior propensity. As with the 2006 Bug, another distinguished Friedkin-Letts collaboration, Friedkin and company aren’t overtly concerned with separating the film from its stage roots. With most of the action cramped inside a cheap, run-down trailer, the atmosphere of Killer Joe takes on a claustrophobic intensity that announces itself most loudly in the extended climax.
And what a climax it is — wickedly violent, gloriously depraved, and bound to cement Killer Joe as one of the funniest times at the movies all year long. It’s an enjoyably filthy charcoal comedy, projecting a diabolical humor that can nevertheless be enjoyed at a distance. But with people like Friedkin and Letts running the show, you can feel the smarts emanating from each beat. Most of all, it’s the latter’s writing that makes the stew more complex than you’d think. Pitting a disciplined control freak against a family of ignorant misfits — and throwing the daughter, the strangest one of all, right in the middle of both parties — Killer Joe is both a curiously measured psychology study and a rollicking riot of cutthroat fun.
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