There’s a reason Matthew McConaughey’s character wears a black Stetson in Killer Joe, a self-knowingly sleazy crime drama that’s simultaneously repellent and enjoyable.
His is no white-hat role, and both he and the movie are the better for it.
McConaughey is in the midst of a career revival, leaving behind the brainless, lightweight charmers he played in a string of flimsy romantic comedies to portray more complicated, morally challenged, middle-aged guys in films such as Magic Mike and The Lincoln Lawyer.
He takes on his darkest role yet in Joe, playing with mesmerizing authority the title character, Killer Joe Cooper, a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a hit man.
Killer Joe is set deep in trailer-park territory. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), a would-be drug dealer whose cocaine stash was stolen by his mother, shows up one rainy night at the rundown mobile home where his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), a dim-bulb auto mechanic, lives with his trampy second wife (Gina Gershon) and virginal teenage daughter (Juno Temple). Chris proposes that he and Ansel hire Killer Joe to do away with Ansel’s first wife and split her insurance money.
Ansel is at first reluctant, and Chris attempts to persuade him. “Look at it this way: Is she doing anybody any good?” Chris asks of his own mother.
The plan is set in motion, with Joe taking sexual custody of the teenage daughter as a retainer payment until the insurance money comes through. Things only get more complicated from there, with Joe slowly taking on the role of paterfamilias to this exceedingly dysfunctional clan, plus double-crosses galore and an eye-popping, pseudo-sex-scene with a poultry part, which earned the film its NC-17 rating.
Killer Joe is based on a 1993 play by Tracy Letts, whose Broadway drama, August: Osage County, won both the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for best play in 2008. Letts, who wrote Joe’s screenplay, re-teams with director William Friedkin (The French Connection and The Exorcist), who earlier directed Bug (2006), also derived from a play by Letts.
Friedkin keeps the energy level high, reveling unapologetically in the film’s roll-in-the-mud aesthetic. One gets the feeling that his attitude is if viewers are shocked or turned off by all this slime, that’s their problem.
The movie, toward the end, sometimes betrays its stage roots as it begins to feel cramped and confined. And when all the shouting and violence—and there’s plenty of it—is finally over, Joe doesn’t really add up to much other than seeing just how down and dirty it can get.
Hirsch, Church and Gershon all give committed, in-for-a-penny, in-for-a-pound performances, often mining humor in their characters’ increasing desperation. But, ultimately, their characters are just too cartoony to be believable, the sitcom versions of the true bleak desperadoes one finds in a Sam Shepard play.
The exception would be McConaughey’s chilling Killer Joe. You never, ever want to actually meet this guy in real life, but it’s a scary thrill to watch him on a screen.
Killer Joe (NC-17) ★★★☆☆