Director: William Friedkin
MPAA Rating: NC-17
Studio: Voltage Pictures
Darkly funny, nasty and ugly as hell, Killer Joe won’t be everybody’s shot of rye. Based on the 1993 play that helped put Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) on his road to a Pulitzer, it’s about a skeevy, low-rent Texas guy (Emile Hirsch) scheming to have his mother killed to collect the insurance money to pay off his gambling debts. That goal eventually brings him and his equally ugly family under the heel of a Dallas cop who moonlights as a killer for hire (Matthew McConaughey).
This cop is a coiled, dangerous cobra out of a noir nightmare novel by Jim Thompson, and, well, let’s say things get incredibly savage, bloody and sexual when Hirsch can’t come up with the blood money and the killer entangles himself in the lives of Hirsch’s dumb-as-a-rock father (Thomas Haden Church); his slutty, venal stepmother (Gina Gershon) and the insurance policy’s beneficiary, his sister, a disturbed, tough-fragile trailer park Lolita (Juno Temple).
Letts adapted his own play and director William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) keeps a constant sense of dread and menace, although occasionally things topple over into Southern-fried camp territory, especially when the material’s stage origins get all too obvious. Letts’ work offers plenty of juicy, controversial roles to go around, though, with Gershon swinging for the fences (and sometimes missing), Church doing another of his patented hunky galoots and Hirsch not quite getting under the skin of his slimy character.
Temple, though, is outstanding in a woman-child role that requires her to walk a tightrope between mental instability and a terrifying show of power. But this is McConaughey’s movie, and he looks happy as a clam to be miles away from any Hollywood rom-com. He brings the role edge, humor, sleaze, and he’s so convincing playing an utter nutbag to remind us that, with Killer Joe, The Lincoln Lawyer, Bernie and Magic Mike, he has truly begun to deliver on the big promises that were made for him in the 1990s.
His twisted sequence involving Gershon, Church and a fried chicken drumstick — just one of the many things that got the film slapped with an NC-17 rating — may send some moviegoers fleeing for the exits. But for others, it will be riveting, can’t-look-away stuff. Maybe Killer Joe isn’t the stuff of awards, but if you're in the mood for down and dirty, it really gets under the skin.