William Friedkin's Killer Joe is an elegantly simple piece of pulp fiction about mayhem resulting from a family murder plot involving an assassin hired to kill a relative and collect life insurance. It takes Oklahoma-bred, Steppenwolf-involved actor-writer Tracy Letts, who wrote the screenplay from a 1993 play of his, back to the kind of low-IQ idiocy he so cunningly crafted into the insane action of his 1996 Bug, made into a splendid Off-Broadway show in 2004 that Friedkin directed a 2006 screen version of. In between Letts trod more gentrified ground in his celebrated family reunion drama, August, Osage County, a full-on 2008 Broadway play whose screen version directed by John Wells is scheduled for next year with Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep. For me Killer Joe seems a return to form for Letts, who really seems to click when he writes trailer trash characters. This one clearly works better as a movie than Bug, despite the latter's FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes -- and so justifies Friedkin's sticking with Letts for another project. His screenwriting skills seem to have improved. General audiences aren't likely to rush to see the bloody, violent, sexually crude tragicomedy that is Killer Joe, but it's a showy further example of Matthew McConaughey's willingness to explore edgy, non-pretty roles.
Killer Joe's theatrical too. As Killer Joe Cooper, McConaughey gets to dominate the last part of the action in a long speech with a violent and humiliating finale that makes Emile Hirsch as Chris Smith, Thomas Hayden Church as his father Ansel, and Jono Temple as Dottie, his pliant young virgin sister, seem like mere pawns in his cruel cat-and-mouse game. This movie is basically a lot of laughably dumb and crazy dialogue. But it's also got chases and beatings and a fire and a corpse and lots of fake blood, all of which take viewers to places where a stage play can't literally go, and the claustrophobic and less cinematic Bug didn't.
Emile Hirsch still seems frustratingly to fall short of potential. He was adventurous in the little known The Mudge Boy, good in Lords of Dogtown and Milk, touching in Into the Wild, but this performance as the in-debt Chris won't add much luster to his résumé because McConaughey dominates and Hirsch is mainly Joe's and some betting tout enforcers' wide-eyed, motor-mouthed punching bag. Chris is a train wreck; watching this movie itself is like rubbernecking alongside a freeway accident. Jori Temple seems dumb and has a nice body. Her delivery is unclear and she isn't memorable. Let's assume a really great young actress in the role could be. I don't want to forget Gina Gershon as Ansel's duplicitous current wife Sharla: she has a sleazy energy that may make her the best character after Killer Joe himself.
Chris engages Joe to kill his mother, Ansel's ex-wife, and draws Ansel in on the deal; the victim remains largely unseen as does her current boyfriend Rex. Of course things go badly wrong. You'll find out how. Much of the fun is the laugh- and shock-value of conceiving of people this venial, stupid, and lost. They are urban hayseeds. This is a city slicker's crime story version of "Hee Haw." It lacks the action-suspense edge of the Coens' Blood Simple (and the main crime we don't even see). Letts remains mainly an expert wielder of on-set plot twists via dialogue. The beatings, the blood, and the humiliations up the ante, though. For a Bug fan this was not to be missed. There still remains the question, though, whether the tongue-in-cheek side of Letts' dark vision doesn't come across better on stage.
McConaughey's sudden improbable "it boy" status got him three appearances at big festivals over the past year: this at Venice, and, at Cannes, starring roles in both Jeff Nichols' Mud and Lee Daniels' The Paperboy (the latter with another prettyboy who aspires to the "serious," Zac Efron). Soderbergh's Magic Mike, in which McConaughey costars, has done well critically, and earlier this year there was Richard Linklater's even more admired Bernie, where his performance as a sleazy DA was well received, though it didn't impress me much. McConaughey seems to use the same slow lizard-like delivery each time. It's a schtick that may run dry. It may also be said that there is something too clean and tidy about McConaughey to make him believable as Killer Joe's cop-assassin. An actor somewhere between him and Thomas Hayden Church in rough seediness was needed. And yet though it seems a contrivance, one almost feels the role was written for him. McConaughey's delivery and control of the scene are masterful though, in the final showdown sequence, thanks doubtless to both Letts's writing and Friedkin's direction. It may just be a schtick, but he's got it down, and some day he may get a great role as a character actor. Killer Joe isn't a masterpiece. It's a pretty rough-cut gem. But this kind of movie doesn't get made very often and with this good a director and cast, and that made it worth taking a stab at.
Killer Joe debuted at Venice and Toronto in late 2011, and released June 29, 2012 in the UK, July 27 (limited) in the US.
©2012 Chris Knipp
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