William Friedkin’s Film of Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe may be the most egotistical opening credit to ever adorn a movie. Is Friedkin really this desperate to remind everyone he’s still making movies? In his young-turk era in the 1970s, the director was a master of realistic, rough-hewn pictures ( The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer). Then he hit a slump in the 1980s and 1990s with a string of duds — Jade, The Hunted, Rules of Engagement and most infamously The Guardian, the one about the tree that ate babies (no, seriously).
Recently, Friedkin has devoted himself to doing episodes of CSI and adapting the work of playwright Letts (this is their second collaboration, after 2006’s Bug). Killer Joe, which is actually Letts’ first play, is a Southern gothic story about trailer-park denizens doing horrible things to each other. The movie is unpleasant and nihilistic and devoid of any compassion or humor (some have called it a “dark comedy,” which is shorthand for “I don’t know what else to call it.”) The movie would be unwatchable if it were not filmed so well (the cinematographer is Caleb Deschanel, who also shot The Black Stallion and The Right Stuff) and if its cast were not so stellar.
There’s an undeniable fascination in watching Matthew McConaughey dig deep into a darkness he had never tapped before to play Joe Cooper, a demented small-town cop who hires himself out as a contract killer: Pay him $20,000 and he’ll get rid of anyone you want gone. McConaughey is the film’s main attraction: You’ve never seen this likable, funny actor radiate so much crazy heat and sinister intent: He seems capable of anything, no matter how demented — and as the movie unfolds, he proves it.
But to what end? The plot of Killer Joe follows what happens when the layabout Chris (Emile Hirsch), who owes money to some bad people, hires Joe to kill his estranged mother so he can use her life insurance policy to pay his debts. Chris’ father (Thomas Haden Church), who hates his ex-wife and could use a little cash himself, agrees. But their murderous scheme — which is approved by Chris’ shrew of a stepmother (Gina Gershon) — doesn’t go quite as planned.
Killer Joe is filled with supposedly outrageous touches such as having Gershon enter the film naked from the waist down, or turning Chris’ dim-witted little sister (Juno Temple) into a potential object of rape. The movie earned its NC-17 rating for some nauseating business involving a KFC chicken drumstick that qualifies as the most baffling product placement in movie history. But even beyond that scene, Killer Joe ladles on the extreme violence and gore, which would be tolerable in an exploitation movie but comes off as a cheap tactic in a film that aspires to explore the moral digressions we are capable of tolerating. You end up feeling sorry for all the actors forced to humiliate themselves, except for McConaughey, whose portrayal of sadistic, manipulative evil is mesmerizing, in part because it was so unexpected.