Aeschylus with a bucket of fried chicken, William Friedkin's nasty, noirish film adaptation of Tracy Letts' bizarre Southern Gothic tragicomedy Killer Joe unleashes its cavalcade of NC-17 grotesquerie with a brazen opening salvo. One dark night, ratty, good-for-nothing Chris (Emile Hirsch) comes desperately knocking at his dim-bulb father Anselm's (Thomas Haden Church) door. What he finds is Anselm's wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) sans panties or modesty. "Put some clothes on, for God's sake," he yells. "I didn't know who you were!" she retorts.
Consider this Friedkin and Letts' warning to leave the theater if you're looking for anything resembling subtlety, plausibility or demurral — or for that matter, characters worth caring about. And yet their brakes-off hellride has an elemental force that keeps you riveted, even as you're shaking your head in disbelief, disapproval, or even shame.
The set-up is so grimy you'll need a shower after reading it: Chris is in desperate need of some money because (naturally) a murderous loan shark is after him. He's hatched a not particularly foolproof plan to zotz his biological mom and get her life insurance, which supposedly goes to Dottie (Juno Temple), his virginal, otherworldly teenage sister. To do the deed, they hire a police detective, the titular Joe (Matthew McConaughey), who apparently has a lucrative side business handling this sort of thing. When someone asks whether it's a problem if he ever has to investigate one of his own killings, Joe replies, "It's a convenience."
Cold as ice and methodical, Joe asks for his money upfront. His trailer-trash clients ain't got none, but he agrees to take a retainer: Dottie. Chris himself appears to have some kind of feelings for Dottie — either protective or perverted, maybe both. So he's not quite sure what to do about this murderous stranger he's basically invited to enter his home and his sister.
The plan unravels further from there, but plot's got almost nothing to do with what Killer Joe is about. With characters this profoundly dumb (and not particularly realistic, not that realism is what anybody's going for here), picking over issues of who-did-what-when-and-why would be a fool's errand. Rather, Friedkin seems interested, as always, in the collision of messed-up humanity with existential fact. Joe, as played beautifully by McConaughey, is more a non-negotiable force of nature than another human variable. His icy, reaper-like calm stands in sharp contrast to the wild-eyed, fucked-up family he joins, and his utter humiliation of them is less a story development than an act of God — a cosmic joke. He is, in his own way, immovable and unstoppable.
Friedkin remains best known for such milestones in kinetic, sensational cinema as The French Connection and The Exorcist, but to his credit he doesn't try to "open up" the play. Indeed, Killer Joe's strange austerity gives it a kind of elegance — a claustrophobic, almost classical quality. Granted, it's sometimes off-putting to watch; as noted above, there's no character to latch onto, or even narrative suspense to try to follow. But as he did with his adaptation of Letts' chamber freakout Bug, Friedkin holds us rapt with the spectacle of unshackled compulsion. We sit in awe as these horrid people do even more horrid things to themselves and to each other; the top-that extent of their depravity exerts a trainwreck's fascination. The Ancient Greeks would be so proud.
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