Killer Joe is a thriller that never quite leaves behind its stage-bound roots in making the transition from play to screen. But that's not necessarily a bad thing when you're talking about a broad, incendiary slice of Texas Gothic.
The characters are bigger than life and lower than low. Everybody's vile, with the title character the most villainous. Everybody shouts, save for the title character, who is so bad he doesn't need to. The dialogue is arch, risible, trailer-park Faulkner.
The casting is a trifle too on-the-nose. Emile Hirsch of Into the Wild is Chris, a manic young punk who sets off this tale of murder for hire. Gina Gershon (Show Girls, Bound) has played plenty of women who might be comfortable answering the door with no pants or underwear on. Thomas Haden Church's deadpan stare and honking voice are spot-on as Ansel, a dullard dad who is slow on the uptake. Was he aware of the schemes the others set in motion around him?
"I'm never aware." Who else could get as big a laugh with that line?
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Juno Temple utterly inhabits the naive, slightly touched Dottie, a sexual invitation of the Baby Doll variety, straight out of Tennessee Williams.
And Matthew McConaughey, in the performance of his career, tones down his swagger to a mere suggestion to play Killer Joe Cooper, a Dallas cop and part-time hit man who never raises his voice and thus stands out in this cast of shouting, wrestling, Bud-swilling rednecks.
"When we make arrangements," he calmly hisses to Chris, the kid who wants to hire Joe to kill his mother for her insurance money, "I expect the details to have some attention paid to them."
For this, the best film of the summer, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts doesn't water down the nasty script about thoroughly nasty folks for the screen, which means Killer Joe moves from stage to cinema with an NC-17 rating. But you'd hate to censor a word, a suggestion, a single unforgettable blast of cruelty or kinkiness.
Director William Friedkin, decades removed from his French Connection glory, gets in there and gets out of the way of the "fun."
Chris (a role originated off-Broadway by Lexington native Michael Shannon) is in trouble with a loan shark. He enlists his dad (Church) in a scheme to kill Chris' mom and Dad's ex-wife, Adele, for a $50,000 insurance settlement. Dad's scummy pizza-waitress wife, Sharla (Gershon), has no problem with that.
But Dottie, Chris' sister, might. Temple plays Dottie's libidinous naivete to the hilt, a "slow" 19-year-old who sees the necessity of this scheme. When the men contract with Killer Joe to do the hit, Dottie has but one question for him: "You gon' kill my momma?"
Joe — all archetypal leather jacket and gloves, black cowboy hat and sunglasses, a man whose every move is measured, planned and cunning — is smitten. They don't have his cash upfront? Dottie will be is "retainer." He is courtly, solicitous to her. Until he isn't. The film earns a big chunk of its NC-17 in their scenes.
Letts creates a Blue Velvet world of crude lowlifes, kinky customers and criminals, which Friedkin suggests without ever taking his camera too far from the trailer where much of this takes place. The theatricality of the piece is in its little monologues — anecdotes about the mostly-unseen victim of the crime, about Chris' past, about some particularly violent encounter Joe once lived through.
Friedkin never quite lets us forget this was a play, confining the action in the middle and later acts, except for one dazzling sequence in which he shows us he still knows how to stage and shoot a chase scene better than anybody.
It's funny how a half-century after The Wild Bunch, it takes a film built on a lurid, loud and lacerating play to prove that violence on film still has the power to shock and appall. Like the great theater it was and is, Killer Joe reminds us that for all the blood and bullets, it's still language — hard, ugly words — that is the most violent of all.