Grim slice of contemptible life in the American South has a desperate young Texas drug dealer at his wits end. Chris has incurred a sizable debt with a drug lord and now he needs to somehow raise the money to pay him off. Joe is a contract killer (and corrupt police detective). When the chance arises for Chris to hire him to murder his mother in order to collect on her life insurance policy, he seizes the opportunity. His teenage sister Dottie is the actual monetary beneficiary and she’s inadvertently drawn into their vile web. Pulitze Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts adapts his 1993 Off-Broadway play for this screen adaptation directed by none other than William Friedkin, dubbed the “enfant terrible“ of 70s cinema. Friedkin and Letts worked before on the 2006 psychological horror film Bug starring Ashley Judd.
A surprise to no one, Friedkin’s dark comedy is a daring tale for an adult audience. Appropriating the cinematic lexicon of past auteurs, William Friedkin’s southern gothic fable rests comfortably among the most taboo inclinations of directors like Sam Peckinpah David Lynch, the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino. In fact Killer Joe has been awarded an NC-17 by the Motion Picture Association of America for its decidedly vivid combination of violence and sexuality. The move effectively limits the audience as no one under 17 may attend, period. Indeed, Killer Joe pushes boundaries. Where the camera might cut away to lesson the impact of the brutality in other films, Friedkin’s gaze is fixed directly on the utter savagery. One violent altercation is a graphic display of punches to the face. A character is repeatedly hit over and over to a bloody climax that becomes cartoonish for its sound effects and blood. The action genuinely earns its rating. This is a cult picture meant for select tastes.
Killer Joe’s script crackles with an intensity that’s kind of rare in modern cinema. There’s a loopy abandon to the dialogue. It’s as if any character will say or do anything to preserve their own skin. Juno Temple is Dottie Smith, Chris’s wide eyed, virginal sister. It’s hard to tell whether she’s as morally bankrupt as the rest of her clan or just incredibly simpleminded. When she overhears her dad and brother plotting her mom’s murder, she offers “I heard y’all talking about killing mama. I think it’s a good idea.” Later Joe demands that Chris put Dottie up as “collateral” when he isn’t able to produce his fee outright. Father Ansel, played by Thomas Haden Church, being the protective type he is, suggests “that it just might do her some good.” But the MVP of the film is Matthew McConaughey. He’s an actor reborn. Starting with The Lincoln Lawyer in 2011, his re-commitment to interesting parts continues. The relationship between him and Chris’ teen sister Dottie is sort of the twisted nucleus of the film. His magnetic character is just as flawed, perhaps more so, as the rest of this sordid lot. However his patented slow-talking, southern drawl sets him apart from the rest of these hyperactive, loud mouthed personalities.
To elevate these denizens to a moniker like “trailer trash” is a compliment. They embody the lowest instincts of a human being and their unscrupulous values are a full frontal assault on the senses. Right from the beginning this is apparent when Ansel’s girlfriend Sharla answers the front door, naked from the waist down. The portrait of this family is dysfunctional to say the least. The descent into moral depravity is frequently exploited for laughs. Their behavior is so shocking, it’s humorous but at times regrettable. These people are baseless, amoral types that are so outlandish, they’ll either have you rolling in the aisles or running for the shower.