Director William Friedkin has always been attracted to lurid movie material. From the gruesome, overcooked The Exorcist to the vile and unhinged Cruising, he craves plots about deeply conflicted characters who are hopelessly alienated, disconnected from both the society that surrounds them and even their own lives. One craves another well-crafted action nail-biter like his Oscar-winning The French Connection, but at 76, his view of the world just gets darker than ever. Small wonder, then, that he has found his literary soulmate in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts, whose twisted, controversial and fascinating work has found its way to the screen through Mr. Friedkin’s jaundiced camera twice—first in the repellant schizophrenic thriller Bug, and now in the toxic trailer-trash thriller Killer Joe. When this sick, ludicrous cocktail of sex, violence and mayhem was first unveiled a year ago at the Toronto International Film Festival, one wag aptly described it as “the ghost of Tennessee Williams meets the spirit of Quentin Tarantino.” For shock value, cut to Gina Gershon, crawling across a filthy kitchen floor covered in blood to perform fellatio at gunpoint on a Colonel Sanders drumstick, and you have a high-water mark in tastelessness that gives depravity a bad name.
The inbred lowlifes in this B-movie black comedy are members of the Smith family, a clan of troglodytes in a seedy Texas trailer park replete with vicious barking dogs on chains, who swing into ruthless high gear from the very first scene, when penny-ante drug dealer Chris Smith (a game turn by Emile Hirsch, who has grown from the appealing, open-faced kid in The Emperor’s Club into a scabby, hirsute roughneck) arrives in a torrential rainstorm and is greeted at the screen door by his father’s new wife Sharla with a female full-frontal. Following a drug deal that went sour when his own mother stole the cocaine and kicked him out of her house, Chris is broke, desperate and not exactly lit by all four burners on the stove, on the lam from the good ole boys on motorcycles who want money or murder. But Chris has a plan: his mother’s $50,000 life insurance policy. If his mentally challenged, beer-swilling father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), who works as a grease monkey at Bob’s Muffler Shop, and his sluttish stepmom Sharla, a former stripper who works in a pizza parlor, will help, they can knock off Chris’s drunken mom (and Ansel’s ex-wife), pay off the debt, split the profits, and have enough dough left over to improve their lifestyle—maybe get out of the trailer and move up in the world, to a tract house with aluminum siding near a 7-Eleven.
To make sure the job goes off without a hitch, Chris has even hired a contract hitman who never fails—a psychotic cop in a Stetson hat and skin-tight jeans called Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who moonlights as an assassin. The first problem: they can’t pay his $25,000 fee until they collect the life insurance, so Killer Joe agrees to take Chris’s nubile, thumb-sucking, baby doll sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as a retainer for his services. Chris and his dad are reluctant to pimp out their nubile Lolita for a killer’s bounty, but their survival instincts outweigh all feelings of morality and guilt. Besides, her daddy says, “It might just do her some good.” Second problem: What they don’t know is that Dottie’s mom (who is talked about but never seen) has made her the secret recipient of the insurance policy, and Dottie has her own ideas about what to do with the money. Nor does she completely mind the idea of losing her virginity to the swaggering, seductive and studly Joe and keeping the money herself. As the plot turns brutal, the psychopaths turn greedy—especially Ansel’s wife and partner-in-crime, Sharla (Ms. Gershon, shedding more than just her underwear and baring all)—lying, ruthlessly cheating each other and facing the ultimate consequences, in a curdled, rampaging splatterfest finale that sprays blood all over the walls and leaves almost the entire cast on the floor with their guts hanging out. Because the characters are all equally loathsome and stupid, you are never sure if the hilarity is intentional, but I guarantee you the antics of this dysfunctional chicken-fried family will make you gasp and laugh at the same time. Oddly enough, it’s the juxtaposition of comedy and horror that keeps Tracy Letts’ screenplay balanced between entertainment and nausea and highlights the highs and lows of Mr. Friedkin’s fast-paced, pulp fiction, film-noir direction. They can both thank the fearless cast for their passionate willingness to do anything—and everything—for maximum effect. Kicked and beaten by a man’s fists to human hamburger, Ms. Gershon is both amusing and appalling as she pushes the degradation of women beyond the boundaries of political correctness. Even Mr. McConaughey, a terrible actor with no craft or range who whistles through his teeth like a tea kettle until you climb the wall, seems more natural than usual, staggering around in his birthday suit, with his whining Texas accent used to good advantage. He even manages to give Killer Joe a mix of kink and tenderness, finding unexpected down-home joy in something as simple as a home-cooked tuna casserole. Ms. Temple’s thumb-sucking Dottie has erotic moments, but nothing Carroll Baker in a nightie didn’t think of first in Baby Doll. Mr. Friedkin imparts an ugly Texas landscape of convenience stores, pizza joints, auto repair shops and cheap motels to show the downfall of decaying blue-collar America with harrowing effect.
In the final analysis, the atmosphere overwhelms the logic. There is no subtext to the carnage; we hold out no hope that these clueless wretches will learn or grow or stretch beyond the depth of a mug of Lone Star draft. The narrative ideas come from better movies as varied as Double Indemnity, Tobacco Road and Fargo. I confess I found the uncompromising trashiness perversely riveting, until the ending, which pours on the gore like barbecue sauce. It sends you home reeling, but wondering what the point of it was, and why so many worthwhile people bothered to do it in the first place.
Running Time 103 minutes
Written by Tracy Letts
Directed by William Friedkin
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch and Juno Temple