If you think you’ve seen gritty, pulpy, trashy noir, then you certainly haven’t seen “Killer Joe.” Unapologetically tawdry, twistedly perverse and proudly NC-17, and of course, nastily entertaining, this blackly comic, Southern Gothic exploitation pic revels in trailer trash and lurid, black-hearted behavior. It might call for a shower afterwards to scrub away all the sweat and grime, but it pulls no punches for what it is, and you wouldn’t want it any other way. Director William Friedkin (1971’s “The French Connection” and 1973’s “The Exorcist”) proves he’s always ready to shock within the context of storytelling and far from losing his nerve and spine at 76.
“Killer Joe” marks Friedkin’s second adaptation of a Tracy Letts playâ€”the first was 2006’s increasingly gonzo but none-too-cinematic “Bug”â€”and even though its theatrical roots are evident, it’s full of wild ferocity that somehow feels controlled on the screen.Â The story begins with trailer-park ne’er-do-well Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) finding himself in debt with some local thugs. He then hatches a “brilliant” plan with his dad, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), to hire a hit man to bump off his mother, collect her $50,000 insurance policy, and use his share of it to settle the debt. Chris’ slow, repressed sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), is allegedly the beneficiary, so they’ll have no problem getting the money, and Ansel’s new wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon), also wants in on the action. The hit man in question is Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a cold, calculating Dallas police detective who moonlights as a killer. He makes it clear that if they are caught or implicated, and if they drop his name, they will be killed. $25,000 must be paid to Joe in advance, but he’ll reconsider if they give him Dottie as a retainer. Suffice it to say, the plan goes horribly awry.
When Dottie agrees to make supper, it ends up only being her and Joe. First comes the tuna casserole and then comes their creepily icky sexual encounter, but a weird sweetness unfolds with their relationship. If that’s not hard to watch, the climactic kitchen confrontation, which employs a fried chicken leg into one character’s humiliation, is so unflinchingly cruel, uncomfortable, disturbing, and well, bat-shit crazy, that it will most likely leave viewers speechless and/or offended with their stomachs turned. This scene is one of the key reasons the film will produce such a hullabaloo, and you’ll never look at a bucket of KFC the same again. Restraint isn’t really in the cards for Friedkin, but he manages to really go for it in horrifically brutal ways.
Across the board, the cast digs into the sleaze with relish and kills it without becoming a callous, Rob Zombie-ish freakshow. They’re not broad caricatures, but interestingly despicable types. McConaughey has been on quite a rollâ€”his banner year has consisted of “Bernie,” “Magic Mike,” and “The Paperboy”â€”and here as the eponymous Killer Joe, he is a revelation of shady, slimy, slick, seductive swagger with enough know-how when to dial it down and when to turn it up like he did in the disowned “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.” Ignore most of the romantic comedies from his resume and McConaughey is an impressive character actor, one that seems to flourish particularly in stories set in his home state. Hirsch uses his innate charisma to his advantage, even while playing such a weasel as Chris. Church is just perfect as the drunken, dumb-as-dirt Ansel. Temple, as the virginal, kung fu-practicing Dottie who still sleeps with her stuffed animals and laughs at cartoons, creates a woman-child that’s charming, easily influenced, but unpredictable as well. Finally, in yet another rawly go-for-broke performance, Gershon sinks her teeth into the role of slutty waitress Sharla. When the character first enters the screen, she’s naked from the waist down, so you know Sharla isn’t the classiest of ladies in Texas or any state.
Beneath the surface, Letts’ script doesn’t aim to teach lessons about morality, but it’s darkly funny and sordidly twisty, with a tragicomic punch line that’s the most off-center of happy endings. At once, the down-and-dirty flavor of this noir tale is expertly communicated through Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography, which captures the particular region and nature of the story without making the film itself look ugly. Friedkin even gets the milieu right with a barking chained dog, beer cans, and nighties without underwear; the content isn’t as gratuitous as it’s just daringly honest. Made with artistic integrity and fully earning its NC-17 rating, “Killer Joe” never blinks at the extreme violence on display nor excuses the characters for being the dimmest, scuzziest, most duplicitous, and least redeemable in the Lone Star State.
In the end, “Killer Joe” is like eating a rare, bloody steak: it’s not good for you but it sure has a juicy, finger-lickin’ good taste. It’s definitely not for those that can’t take the Southern-fried heat, but if you can, there’s much to savor here. Lick it up.
102 min., rated NC-17.
Grade: B +