Killer Joe begins showing a semi-nude Gina Gershon and ends with her beaten, bloodied and being forced to suck off a fried chicken leg. Just by that one sentence, you might immediately know if this is a movie you do or do not want to be down with. However, if you require more info, here goes.
Chris (Emile Hirsch, still looking like Jack Black's younger, skinnier self), a small-time Texas drug dealer saddled with debt, hatches a plan to kill his mother for the insurance money. His trailer park-dwelling family, including a slatternly stepmom (Gershon); a stubbly dad (Thomas Haden Church); and a simple, virginal sister (Juno Temple) her brother is way too attached to, are disturbingly OK with this plan.
Chris hires the services of "Killer" Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a police detective who has a little side gig as a hitman. Cooper initially balks at the idea of waiting until after he's committed the act to get his $25,000 fee. That is, until he sees Chris's sister and decides she can serve as his "retainer" until he gets his money.
A film that virtually reeks of cigarettes, stale food and lower-class luridness, Killer Joe marks the second collaboration between director William Friedkin and playwright Tracy Letts, whose play Bug Friedkin made into a 2007 movie with Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon. What the hell is it about the work of Letts that makes Friedkin get into big-screen adaptation mode? Maybe it's because Letts' plays seem like pieces that are both controlled and out-of-control—and presented in a fast and cheap manner. Anyone who knows Friedkin's catalog knows this is how he's been making these films his entire career.
Joe is practically the flip side of Bug, playing its intense/ immense white-trashiness for dark, startling laughs instead of unnerving, blood-curdling terror. When I saw a production of the play years ago (in Texas, no less), my immediate response was "What the fuck was that all about?" I'm not that surprised to see that my opinion still hasn't changed. Even with recognizable names in the cast, this is still one messed-up piece of work.
The cast does appear to revel in all this honky-tonk nastiness. McConaughey lays on such a menacing, assured cool as the bad boy of the title that it's almost unfortunate when he turns out—in the movie's now-notorious, blood-and-poultry-filled climax—to be a ludicrous nutjob with serious psychosexual issues. (However, McConaughey is hilarious when he tosses tables around like a gorilla and hollers, "I'll slaughter all of ya!") The cast's commitment to the material almost makes you forget there's really not much to this story.
Nevertheless, Killer Joe is such a hideously over-the-top, black-hearted view of Southern-fried scumbags that even Texans like myself can't get offended. However, I wouldn't blame you if this movie turned you off from ever eating at Bojangles again.
This article appeared in print with the headline "You kill me."