Warning: the film Killer Joe contains brutal violence, an obscene act performed with a leg of fried chicken, and such lines as “Do you want me to wear your face?” It’s also the work of a Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright and an Oscar-winning director, slumming in trailer-trash Texas and Grand-Guignol nihilism. Billed as “William Friedkin’s film of Tracy Letts’s Killer Joe,” the NC-17 picture amounts to an ideal adaptation of Letts’ first play, a merrily sleazy black-humor melodrama culminating in the most demented family dinner this side of Titus Andronicus.
Whether Killer Joe is worthy material to begin with is questionable—it doesn’t run much deeper than “man’s inhumanity to man” (or woman), and its sick delight in torturing its characters is palpable—but Friedkin and his cast certainly suck the marrow out of it, with relish. Matthew McConaughey gives a mightily impressive controlled performance as the title character, a Dallas detective who doubles as a contract killer. Hired by dangerously-in-debt Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) and his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) to kill Chris’s mother, Joe smells the kind of situation it’s probably better to walk away from, but, ay, there’s a rub: Chris’ addled young sister Dottie (Juno Temple), who Joe immediately desires. In lieu of payment, Joe will take Dottie, thank you very much.
As per the tradition ranging from Euripides through the Elizabethans and Jacobeans and straight through to Quentin Tarantino and Martin McDonagh, blood will have blood, and family is no object to looking after number one (“It’s all anyone really cares about, if you think of it,” Ansel sighs). The only morally excusable character in Killer Joe is the evidently crazy one, Dottie, who accepts the dregs of humanity around her for what they are. Letts is a not-untalented dramatist, but he built his calling-card play mostly for shock value, and as such it tests one’s tolerance for systematic degradation of human life. Then again, some people like that sort of thing.
Even though Killer Joe plays sort of like Wild at Heart without the love, sympathy, and wonder, the acting is superb, and Friedkin expertly stages Letts’ screenplay for the camera of five-time Oscar nominee Caleb Deschanel. Hirsch gives good dim desperation, the deadpan Church again proves hysterically funny and surprisingly moving as an utter failure, and Temple and the always fierce Gina Gershon (as Ansel’s wife) are intensely believable, and unflinching, as the women the men treat like dogs.
Abuse of women is partly the point, to the degree there is one, and so are the ways in which power is given up by the weak and taken by the shrewd (Joe significantly alludes to how Oklahoma just plain gave up land). Friedkin’s pretty shrewd himself, in how he teases out the humor without indulging Letts’ immature glibness, and how he sidesteps Bible Belt baptism to waterboard us in the sewer of selfish human nature.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]