Film Review: Killer Joe

A paean to pulp fiction, this gruesome but thoroughly entertaining Geek tragedy features a son plotting to kill his mother and prostitute his sister, with his father a willing accomplice.

Brandishing its NC-17 rating like a sociopathic sheriff flashing his silver star, Killer Joe exults in its in-your-face nudity, perverse sexuality and graphic violence. Tracy Letts, adapting his 1998 play by the same name, has genuine affinity for Southern gothic and true crime, and he approaches his material—dirt-poor trailer-trash nihilists—with barely a hint of irony, unlike so many screenwriters who feel compelled to wink at the audience. Letts can be raw, his dialogue crude, his characters affectless, his plot contrived, but that’s the pulpy point: Killer Joe is a hell of a movie, to paraphrase the late, great Jim Thompson.

The film’s impossibly sordid story concerns the Smith family, a vitiated clan without moral compass or compunction. Simpleminded Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) lives with his slatternly second wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon), and his daughter, Dottie (Juno Temple), in a mobile home somewhere in the Texas wasteland. One dark and stormy night, Ansel’s equally dull-witted son, Chris (Emile Hirsch), desperate for money to pay off the local loan shark (Marc Macaulay), turns up in their doublewide with a scheme to score an easy $50,000. All they have to do murder Ansel’s first wife—Chris’ mother—and collect the insurance through Dottie, the beneficiary. Chris knows just the man for the job, a Dallas detective who moonlights as a contract killer, Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey).

The plan, needless to say, goes awry from the get-go, in part because neither Ansel nor Chris has money to pay Joe a retainer. Fortunately for them, Joe is as bent as they are and has taken a fancy to nubile Dottie, whose name suits her to a “y.” He decides to take the job if he can have her as collateral against the payout, an arrangement just alright with her father and brother—until Chris has second thoughts, not because he suddenly shirks from the whole nasty business, but because he shares a dark secret with his sister.

Sleazy, abhorrent stuff, but smashing good pulp, and Letts goes with it all the way, never flinching. Best known for his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County, the 47-year-old dramatist-cum-screenwriter grew up in Oklahoma and moved to Dallas as a young man—Thompson territories—and cut his teeth (one imagines) on the panhandle noir of The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1208. Killer Joe pays homage to the surreal angst of those novels, a hermetic world of loners and drifters and demented philosophers searching for redemption or a stiff drink, whichever is within reach. Letts likes to push his characters to extremes, but in any case, their world always appear more horrific in a dark auditorium than on the printed page.

Indeed, director William Friedkin (The Boys in the Band, The French Connection, The Exorcist), never known for subtlety, gives us the full monty in more ways than one. Killer Joe’s drawn-out climax (pun very much intended) is as vicious and visceral as it gets, as McConaughey gets his freak on with fried chicken. Friedkin also works in one of his signature chase scenes, but watching Chris scamper about an abandoned warehouse pursued by bloated biker thugs is the one belabored sequence in the film.

Friedkin also adapted Letts’ 1996 play Bug for the screen, and the 77-year-old auteur, who struggled with critics and at the box office for much of the ’80s and ’90s, seems to have found his mojo working with the much-praised writer. Killer Joe will have limited appeal—the movie is just too twisted and cruel for most people—but it’s honest if somewhat sensational pulp that fans of the genre will enjoy.