PLOT: A family of particularly unintelligent rednecks hire a shady detective to kill one of their own in order to collect the insurance money. Only problem is, they can't pay the killer his fee... so he'll have to take something else in return.
REVIEW: If you like your comedies dark – that's daaaark - with some violent misogyny thrown in and a general atmosphere of evil, then you'll split your sides over KILLER JOE, William Friedkin's film of the Tracy Letts play that shows us a side of Texas so sordid and seedy that even the Leatherface clan would be compelled to avoid it.
After combining to bring BUG to the big screen (another adaptation of the playwright's stage work), Friedkin and Letts invite us to spend some time with the Smith family: there's dumb-as-a-post patriarch Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), his sultry/slutty second wife Sharla (Gina Gershon), Ansel's simple-minded daughter Dottie (Juno Temple), and Chris (Emile Hirsch), a drug-pushing loser. Situated in the world's grimiest trailer park with a dark cloud continuously hovering over their heads, the family is down on its luck and pathetic in every conceivable facet. Chris in particular has troubles; he's about to be bumped off by the local gangsters thanks to some outstanding debts. In his desperation, Chris comes up with a plan so obvious only a dumb, doomed idiot like him could think it up: He and his family will hire a killer to murder his out-of-the-picture mother and collect the insurance money, which is intended for young, innocent Dottie.
The killer in question is Joe Cooper, a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a hitman. Joe is played by Matthew McConaughey, whose natural laconic, easy-going way is mutated into something snake-like and insidious here. The Smiths don't know what they're getting with Joe, but it might not matter when they realize they can't pay his no-exceptions-allowed down payment of $25,000. Hardly competent enough to scrounge up beer money, they're fortunate to learn that Joe has seemingly taken a liking to 12-year-old Dottie, and will accept her “company” as a retainer...Yes, I wrote "fortunate,” because for the Smiths, no concept is too low, no arrangement too depraved. They're all too happy to give the child to this ruthless man if it means murder will get done.
Sickened yet? Just you wait. Obviously, we're dealing with some bottom-of-the-barrel human (white) trash here, but it's a credit to Letts' writing, Friedkin's taut, simple direction and a cast that's willing to sink down to these characters' levels that KILLER JOE turns out to be such an icky blast. Disturbing too, yes, and wholly wrong in almost each and every scene, but the film so revels in its own gleeful debauchery that it's infectious... if you've got the stomach for it. This is gallows humor of the variety only the Coen boys usually attempt and pull off successfully, although I doubt even they'd travel to the places this one does. (It's NC-17, after all.) KILLER JOE is just this side of tongue in cheek, and the writer and director openly invite you to mock these sleazy cretins, which puts the lewd material at an arm's length. (Except for Joe, who is a major league creep but about a thousand times smarter than the rest of the stooges on screen.) You won't find anybody truly sympathetic here, and more than a few of you will be thoroughly appalled at the way this situation escalates, but it's a real challenge to deny the bravado on display. It's like Friedkin and Letts are daring us to be outraged, laughing while planning their next grotesquely amusing sequence.
You couldn't ask for a better cast to wade through the muck, either. McConaughey is rather perfect; gone is his patented aw-shucks friendliness, replaced with a steely glare that hides just a hint of the maniacal. Villainy suits the actor well, and you won't soon forget what he can do with a chicken drumstick. Also working with, and against, their inherent likability are Church and Hirsch, who make for a great team of country-fried nitwits; Church in particular is as wonderful as his Ansel is drunken and idiotic. Gershon really shines as a conniving harlot who makes the mistake of thinking her intelligence sits high above the rest of the group; she has a couple of really memorable moments as well.
However, Temple is the real revelation. I've personally never seen her before this, but the young actress makes a serious impression among the veterans. It's a performance that can certainly be called bold, but it's also crafty; it lures us in effortlessly. A young Juliette Lewis – from the CAPE FEAR/KALIFORNIA years – is called to mind.
After a long career that is still defined by efforts made some 30+ years ago, William Friedkin has suddenly reemerged as a daring provocateur who we had better keep an eye on: KILLER JOE is one of the director's most accomplished films. It's also one of the best films I've seen so far this year.