Killer Joe is a dirty, violent noir, trading classy gumshoes and dames for greasy white trash, trailer parks and savagery. Director William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and writer Tracy Letts (who wrote the screenplay based on his original stage play) revel in the depravity, and the result is a southern-fried cult classic.
Drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) has just returned to his family’s trailer park, seeking help. He’s in deep to a local gangster, who promises to dispatch him in a most horrible way should he be unable to repay his debt. He appeals to his dad, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), who’s so podunk stupid and broke he can barely carry a conversation. And while Ansel can’t give Chris the cash, he’s more than susceptible to a get-rich-quick scheme — murdering his ex-wife, Chris’s mother, who has an insurance policy worth $50,000. They just need someone to bump her off, and know just the guy for the job — a detective with a profitable side business as a murderer-for-hire, named Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey).
The family is happy to kill off ol’ mom, none more so than stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon), Ansel’s skeezy wife, and Chris’s sister Dottie (Juno Temple), whose loopy behaviour is likely due to a botched attempt to smother her when she was a baby. There’s a snag, however — Killer Joe’s fee is substantial, and Chris is broke. In a moment of weakness or generosity (or something much more sinister), Joe offers them a deal — to let him keep Dottie as a retainer, who will be returned after he’s paid in full. Best laid plans being what they are in the movies, things go awry pretty quick and the insurance scheme quickly spirals out of control with sex, lies and blood. And then things get really horrifying.
After rejected ratings appeals in the U.S., Killer Joe was given the kiss of death, an NC-17. While it isn’t wholly deserved, the film is deeply disturbing — particularly one notorious scene involving an inventive (and gross) use of fried chicken. Bizarre, hilarious and horrifying moments are scattered throughout, naked karate and some seriously unflattering nude photos among them. Letts’s screenplay is full of poisonously funny and cruel moments, with an unabashed perversity and sadness that will be too much for some viewers to handle. Friedkin photographs the grotesque proceedings beautifully, with flashes of purple lightning and deep shadows. Like the pair’s earlier film, the awesomely paranoid, crack-smoked fantasy Bug, Letts and Friedkin don’t pull any punches.
The real revelation, however, is McConaughey, whose resurrection from stoner stud to respected actor (also see this year’s Magic Mike) continues with, arguably, his best role yet. His villain is slick and professional, draped in black (with snakeskin shoes to match), and an icy persona that barely hides the monstrously huge evil within. The rest of the cast is up to the challenge as well, particularly Gershon, whose performance must’ve required a level of trust and endurance few would be willing to embrace as she does here.
Killer Joe is one of the best noir flicks in years, firmly entrenched in the works of authors like Harry Crews and Joe Lansdale, whose characters are warped by violence, poverty and a southern ego still wounded by the Civil War and Yankee pride. You won’t want to eat fried chicken ever again.