On stage "Killer Joe" had a cartoony feel - nasty, to be sure, but broad and over-the-top funny. It’s as if Tracy Letts, who wrote the play when he was just 26 in 1991, was out to shock. When the play was finally produced in 1993, it did precisely that: its violence, low-rent characters and complete lack of decency took audiences aback. Today its characters would be right at home on reality television; but twenty years ago, it was an in-your-face black comedy - as if John Waters and Quentin Tarantino had collaborated on a stage noir.
Its film version, directed by William Friedkin from Letts’ script, brings to mind Tarantino with its unpleasant characters and in-your-face violence. Largely set in a trailer in the outskirts of Dallas, it recycles a familiar story of murder for cash: Chris (Emile Hirsch), a scheming petty criminal, is thrown out of his house by his mother. He seeks shelter in the trailer shared by his divorced father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), Ansel’s wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) and his kittenish sister Dottie (Juno Temple). He comes with plans to revenge his mother by hiring a contract killer to murder her for insurance money. His mother’s current boyfriend has told him that Dottie is the sole beneficiary of a $50,000 policy and soon his murder plans become a family affair.
Performing the dirty deed will be a hired contract killer - known as Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas police detective with a highly lucrative career on the side. Joe demands $25,000 for the job, but when Chris can’t produce the money up front, he takes Dottie as collateral, with plans of seducing her and taking her virginity as part of the deal.
What follows is both riveting and unsettling. Without giving too much away, let it be said that Chris screws up (as usual) and Joe acts as an avenging angel on this scheming family. The story climaxes with a disconcerting piece of business involving a chicken leg, Sharla and Joe, which had many in the audience gaping with dazed amusement. It’s difficult to fully understand the point of this moment and the violence that precedes and follows it, save to say that it is meant as an expression of contemporary Grand Guignol.
On stage that cartoony quality distanced the audience from the treachery and Jerry Springer seediness of its characters that aren’t so much crafty as dumbly devious in their machinations. The play had a vicious kick - you laughed in spite of your better judgment. On screen, it is darker and more menacing. Friedkin, working with esteemed cinematographer Caleb Dashenal, gives the movie the look of a B-movie from the 1970s: dark and muddy, and realistic in its tacky evocation of desperate living. He also maintains a level of tension that pivots between elements of comedy and danger. It’s easy to dismiss (and laugh) at Chris and his schemes, Ansel’s dim-wittedness and Sharla’s vixen-like nature; but it is also impossible to look away from Joe’s humiliating assault on them. Their dysfunction is played for laughs; Joe’s retribution is not.
Perhaps Letts is making a commentary on the nature of greed and desperation - I really don’t know. It’s a bit hard, even 24-hours later, to make sense of the film, save to see it as an updated take on a film noir. When I saw the play, it wasn’t nearly as disturbing as this film is, which brings to mind such lurid melodramas as "The Last Seduction," "Wild Things" and (most tellingly) "The Killer Inside Me." Some of this may have to do with tone, which moves from a lurid comedy to a steely game of cat-and-mouse with violent consequences. Friedkin and Letts display unnerving cool in the film’s second half, a claustrophobic sequence played in real time in which a foreboding sense of doom is fulfilled in Joe’s actions. It’s easy to see why some may call it too extreme, that the broad strokes that Letts uses to define his characters gives way to something just too ugly to watch. The film’s NC-17 rating suggests that those at the rating board felt that way.
Still, it is precisely because of the way that Letts and Friedkin push the envelope of audience expectations that makes "Killer Joe" such a vivid film experience. That and the letter-perfect cast. Perhaps Emile Hirsch isn’t seedy enough to play Chris (was Jared Leto unavailable?), but he effectively pulls it off with a mix of sleaze and almost touching ambitions. Thomas Hayden Church manages to be two beats behind everyone else, which is precisely the way the not-so-bright Ansel should be played. Gina Gershon brings a fearlessness to Sharla - it’s a brave, no-holes-barred performance that elicits both contempt and pity. And Juno Temple plays the flip side to the character she brought-to-life in last year’s underrated "Dirty Girl": a Baby Doll-ish type right out of Tennessee Williams. It is not her fault that Letts doesn’t fully shape her character in ways that would make her less a cliché. If she’s meant to be key to understanding the film, this isn’t fully developed.
What makes "Killer Joe" worth seeing is the electrifying presence of Matthew McConaughey as the title character. Dressed all in black (with studded cowboy boots) and speaking in a smooth, honey-tinged Texan drawl, he’s both sexy and scary: a charismatic sociopath with unnerving cool. (He’s not that far removed from the murderous cop played by Casey Affleck in "The Killer Inside Me.")
McConaughey’s performance tops a trio of diverse characters he’s played in films this summer. (The other two being the ambitious prosecutor in "Bernie" [another tale of murder set in Texas] and the hot-blooded entrepreneur in "Magic Mike.") Whether or not he’ll be remembered in December during award-season remains to be seen, but those that have dismissed McConaughey as just beefcake, should be required to see his spectacular turn in this film. They will never think of him the same way again.