As the eponymous hit man, credit must be given to Matthew McConaughey for finally playing something other than Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe, the white trash gothic Texas noir NC17 collaboration from director Willliam Friedkin and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tracy Letts. (The two last worked together on the supremely creepy 2006 Bug, a respectable indie vehicle for two Kentuckians, Ashley Judd, and Lexington native Michael Shannon.) McConaughey’s work here is nearly flawless, darker and better than his justifiably well-received turn earlier this summer in Magic Mike.
Shannon actually played the stage version of the dimwitted son Chris in Killer Joe at Chicago’s Steppenwolf years ago, replaced in the movie by the woefully miscast Emile Hirsch (an otherwise fine actor, far out of his emotional and geographical range here). Chris isn’t the protagonist so much as he’s the catalyst. His ineptitude sets things in motion. He’s in drug debt to thugs who plan to kill him for the money he owes, so he shows up banging on the door of his daddy’s trailer (Thomas Haden Church as Ansel), inexplicably hoping to beg a $6,000 loan from a man who looks likes he’s never seen $600. The door is finally opened by his stepmother, Sharla (Gina Gershon) who apparently greets guests bottomless (echoes of Julianne Moore in Short Cuts, though this material is a long way from Altman), and grouses about putting on pants. This is a family, literally, without boundaries. We get it.
Outside the trailer, rain sluices the dry-packed Texas earth, lightning splits the sky, thunder rumbles, and a chained pitbull (T-Bone) barks madly. (The junkyard dog never barks at Killer Joe, just the shiftless family — we’re meant to infer that he’s either wise to what constitutes a real threat, or that, like all movie dogs, he is a better judge of character than the humans are.) Letts’s adaptation feels theatrical and stage-y, but appropriately so, as does much of the dialogue. It is not a black comedy, as has been suggested, but there are deftly executed moments of dark comic relief punctuating the melodrama.
Father and son step into the stormy Texas night to discuss Chris’s Plan B, once Dad has revealed he doesn’t have two nickels to rub together. His mother may have stolen Chris’s stash anyway, and her current boyfriend Rex has mentioned she has a life insurance benefit that would pay off to little sister Dottie to the tune of $50k.
Killer Joe is a detective with a dirty side gig killing them what needs killing. His fee is $25k in advance. On learning that Chris and Ansel can’t come up with the advance, he reconsiders his “no exceptions rules,” and offers instead to take it out in trade: the ambiguously virginal Dottie will be “the retainer.” Deprived of oxygen post-birth (by a smothering episode with her mother), it’s difficult to know how much of her dog and pony show is an act, and how much of her character is written as genuinely slow and at least mentally fragile, if not outright crazy. An English actress, Juno Temple is almost as poorly miscast and inept of accent as Hirsch, so the text might not be as murky as her muddy performance suggests. (Laura Dern first owned this bad-idea-virgin territory in early films like Smooth Talk and Rambling Rose. In 1986, Treat Williams’ deflowering of Dern happened offscreen, but it was no less brutal. It is a shame that Dern, and even lesser heirs like Kirsten Dunst, have long since aged out of this sort of material. Amy Adams briefly shouldered the load in indies like Junebug, before moving on to mainstream.)
Once the crime is set in motion, and Joe has staked an ongoing claim on his retainer in a truly troubling perversion of a “first date,” it would not be a spoiler to say that things begin to go wrong in a fairly conventional and straightforward fashion. Film fans drawn to gothic pulp noir have been inevitably schooled in the oeuvre by decades of exposure to Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs), the Coen brothers (Blood Simple, 1984), A Simple Plan, and even the unjustly overlooked Traveller (1997). The violence is crude, bloody, and graphic. Faces are smashed. Mascara is smeared. Matthew McConaughey’s clothes come off at least once. Close-ups of guns are lingered on lovingly. Cigarettes are smoked moodily and lighters click open and shut ominously. Chekhov would be pleased.
But the third act is assuredly where the NC-17 rating comes in. It quickly achieves torture porn status (Funny Games, not Saw) without a stitch of clothing being removed. (When Ace film critic Raj Ranade blogged the movie for NPR at last year’s Toronto film festival, he called Killer Joe, the “best film ruined by a chicken drumstick.“)
Audiences asking who to root for can gain some insight and guidance from interviews with Letts and Friedkin in Toronto this time last year. Letts puts it simply, “Joe has a code. It might be bent,” but he has one; the others do not. They are winging it, to put it mildly.
It’s to McConaughey’s credit that Joe’s savagery is neither noble nor charming. There are no sideways glances or winks to let us know that he is in on the over-the-top joke. He plays it straight.
There are no happy endings for anyone here.
Rated NC-17, Killer Joe is playing at Lexington’s Kentucky Theatre.