The 39 years that have passed since the release of The Exorcist have not softened William Friedkin. The director’s latest film, Killer Joe, is a hard-boiled, Southern-fried noir that is every bit as sleazy as the characters who get their bloody comeuppance in its final, sordid moments. It’s a relentlessly entertaining and perversely funny freak show that revels in grime and squalor, but somehow comes out shining.
Joe’s cast of characters—a supremely dysfunctional Texas family that unwisely throws in its lot with a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a hired killer—might be small, but what they lack in number, they more than make up for in the staggering depths to which they’ll sink. Their problems begin in earnest when Chris (Emile Hirsch), a small-time drug dealer, finds himself in debt to some dangerous people. His mother has stolen his stash of cocaine, and Chris will be literally buried alive if he doesn’t come up with the six grand he owes his supplier. Chris’s solution is mean-spirited and bone-headed in equal measures: He’ll hire Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), aka Killer Joe, to kill his mom so that he can collect the insurance money.
So Chris’ first mistake is getting himself involved with someone named Killer Joe. His second mistake is bringing his family into the scheme. He tries to borrow Joe’s fee from his dim-witted father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), who practically breaks a sweat trying to keep up with a conversation. Chris’ sexpot stepmom, Sharla (Gina Gershon), and his not-all-there teenage sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), also want in on the $50,000 payoff, so now it’s a four-way split—after Joe collects his $25,000 fee, that is. Yep, these folks are so dumb, mean, and greedy that they’re willing to have someone killed for the price of a used pickup truck. It looks like the deal’s off when Joe demands payment up front, but the plot takes a sick twist when the killer decides he’ll accept the virginal Dottie as a “retainer” for his services.
The situation continues to degrade as the story takes one ludicrous plot turn after the next. If you’re waiting for a glimmer of redemption or even a fleeting moment of grace, you’ll still be waiting when the credits roll—Killer Joe is not that kind of movie. This is down-and-dirty noir at its most wicked, peppered with comedy that’s blacker than the bore of a gun barrel. McConaughey gives a career-best performance as the tightly wound and sexually deviant Joe, who wears the constant threat of violence like a bespoke suit. Any thinking person would go to great lengths to avoid him.
But then, these are not thinking people. Joe, a guy who kills people for money and barters the deflowering of a teenage girl like it’s a perfectly normal business transaction, is actually the most reasonable character in the film. Killer Joe would be unbearably bleak if the characters didn’t go to such lengths to invite their own suffering. Ultimately (and hilariously), even Joe is appalled by the depths to which the family will sink.
In spite of its relentless luridness and pitch-black tone, Joe is laugh-out-loud funny—until it’s not. Most of the violence is reserved for the bloody, over-the-top climax, but it’s a scene leading up to the bloodshed that will be the film’s most notorious. Easily offended viewers should take note of Killer Joe’s NC-17 rating and steer clear; one character’s utter degradation at Joe’s hands makes for one of the most uncomfortable scenes in recent memory. Well played, Gina Gershon. We’ll stop talking about Showgirls for awhile.
Killer Joe is based on a play by Pulitzer-winner Tracy Letts and never quite shrugs off the theatricality inherent to its makeup, but that doesn’t stop Friedkin from directing the holy hell out of it. He coaxes stunning performances from the entire cast. Church has never been funnier, and Gershon hams it up as a trashy, conniving trailer-park vixen who thinks pants and underwear are optional when she answers the door at night. Temple steals scenes like they’re tubes of dime-store lipstick, but it’s McConaughey who earns the spotlight, inhabiting Joe’s skin so perfectly that it’s more than a little disturbing. Just as important as the cast are the sights and sounds of a derelict American South—boarded-up pool halls, run-down trailer parks, pit bulls straining at their chains. Like the characters that inhabit it, Killer Joe country is rotting from the inside out.