Much of the darkly comic thriller Killer Joe takes place in hell's trailer park, with rain constantly pissing down and an angry dog snapping at intruders like Cerberus guarding the mouth of Hades. The Smith family double-wide proves surprisingly spacious, with plenty of room for film noir and redneck humor to get in bed with Greek tragedy for a lurid threesome.
In debt to brutal drug pushers, young Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) plots to arrange for his mother's murder so her survivors can cash a handsome insurance check. If it's a shock that scuzzy but fresh-faced Chris so casually proposes matricide, it's more alarming that none of his family raises a moral objection, not his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), Ansel's second wife Sharla (Gina Gershon), or even Chris's sister Dottie (Juno Temple), despite her appearance of wide-eyed innocence.
Ethically and intellectually stunted on every level, the Smiths at least realize that they can't commit murder without getting caught. "You're gonna kill somebody? You can't even tell time!" Chris sneers to Ansel. Instead, Chris suggests they hire "Killer" Joe Cooper, a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a stone-cold hit man. Matthew McConaughey's commandingly creepy acting in the title role anchors Killer Joe as an engrossingly over-the-top Southern thriller.
McConaughey's performance as Joe crowns a comeback year already marked by his delightful turns as a preening small-town district attorney in Bernie and a male strip club owner in Magic Mike. Most of his career has been a blur of drawling line-readings and misplaced shirts, but McConaughey has added quirky wit to his magnetism in 2012. As Joe, a man in black with cobra eyes beneath his Stetson, McConaughey infuses his drawn-out delivery with menace, whether he's seducing a young woman or putting prospective clients in line.
Joe maintains a strict cash-up-front policy and scoffs at Chris and Ansel's request that he commit murder "on spec," to collect the payment after the insurance check clears. When Joe sees Dottie, however, he makes a counteroffer: Until they can pay him, he'll take Dottie "on retainer." Chris and Ansel contemplate whether the ethereal, delicate young woman should be treated as a kind of sacrificial virgin. Soon enough, Joe moves into the Smith family home, where he proves increasingly dangerous and uncontrollable.
Killer Joe makes the second collaboration between director William Friedkin (most famous for helming The Exorcist) and playwright Tracy Letts, who adapted his play Bug for Friedkin in 2006. Killer Joe was Letts' first play, and as shown by Actor's Express's terrific 2004 production, it reflects a newcomer's desire to provoke attention rather than explore subtle themes. Letts' Pulitzer winner August: Osage County (soon to be a film with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts) explores family dynamics with more depth and complexity than Killer Joe, which dabbles with violence, nudity, and misogynistic brutality for shock value.
A sequence near the end involving a drumstick from "K-Fry-C" outdoes Pulp Fiction's Kahuna Burger scene for using fast food as a means of domination and punishment. Friedkin doesn't always bring out the script's humor to the extent that the Coen Brothers would in Fargo or Raising Arizona mode, but it's still a compelling and watchable experience, no matter how much it makes you squirm.
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