Killer Joe

Reviewed By William Goss
Posted 08/07/12 09:26:20

"A Tempest in a Trailer Park"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It’s a dark and stormy night, of course, when Chris gets a bright idea.

As we’ll soon discover, Chris (Emile Hirsch) isn’t exactly a bright guy, but he is a desperate one, and somebody’s suggested a scheme too tidy to pass up. His good-for-nothing alcoholic mother has a life insurance policy, and he’s in deep with the wrong people after she screws him out of his stash. The way he sees it, if he can get dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), sis Dottie (Juno Temple), and stepmom Sharla (Gina Gershon) to agree to split the policy -- for which Dottie would serve as beneficiary -- they can hire someone to pick off Mom and reap the benefits.

No one bats an eye at the prospect of executing the unseen matriarch, but there’s a little matter of money. See, Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a Dallas detective who carries out hits on the side, uniquely suited to properly dispose of any incriminating evidence, but he doesn’t do jobs without payment in advance... an advance that Chris can’t pay until the deed is done. For whatever reason, Joe makes an exception: he’ll carry out his end of the bargain if he can keep Dottie, as touched as she is untouched, as a retainer.

From there, we watch the Smith clan squirm as they come to realize just what kind of devil they’ve gone ahead and made a deal with. William Friedkin’s second screen adaptation of a Tracy Letts play, Killer Joe proceeds to walk a tonal tightrope of white-trash noir and humiliation, unfolding in a sweaty realm of strip joints and trailer parks, abandoned warehouses and amusement parks. It’s proudly amoral, darkly funny stuff that matches 2007’s Bug with its evident theatrical roots and eventual escalation into gruesome violence, and what’s more, it boasts a fierce, sociopathic performance from McConaughey that outstrips the rest of the admirably game cast.

Hirsch takes beatings well, Church perfects his hangdog demeanor to hilarious effect, and Gershon snarls and schemes about as effortlessly as she bares her own body. (From the first scene on, Friedkin doesn’t, er, beat around the bush when it comes to earning the film’s notorious NC-17 rating.) For McConaughey, though, Joe finally marks an opportunity for the actor, already having himself a banner year, to take the suave cadence that landed him the lead in countless rom-coms and warp it into something deeper, darker, more determined, a sinister quality only hinted at a decade ago in Frailty. His trademark Texas drawl is more subdued than usual, especially compared to those of the local yokels, and his sophisticated exterior exudes a code of professional ethics in an otherwise dirty line of work. It’d be far easier to see Joe as a personification of evil if it didn’t seem like he were doing the outside world something of a favor by setting his sights on some short-sighted clients.

Furthermore, whatever he sees in Dottie -- an object of purity, a chance at redemption, maybe simply a kindred spirit in the land of those who aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are -- introduces vulnerability into his volatile equation. The dysfunctional grace of Temple’s performance matches McConaughey’s in their scenes together, and whether they’re sharing a candlelit casserole dinner or at odds in a bloody confrontation, it’s not hard to see a fucked-up sort of silver lining arise from these dire circumstances, an echo of Bug’s suggestion that delusional, destructive love may be better than none at all.

'Killer Joe' ends with a bold sense of punctuation, almost cruel to the audience and yet nothing compared to the cruelties on screen. While Christopher Nolan does all the corkscrews and loops he wants, the summertime blockbusters can't rival the big-drop rollercoaster audacity of this finely wrought mess.

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