Murder, lechery in Lone Star state
If Jim Thompson and Tennessee Williams had wandered into a bar, downed half the booze behind the counter, and then hit a typewriter before going their separate ways, something like Killer Joe could have emerged.
Trailer-trash noir that opens ominously with the sound of a cigarette lighter flicking open and shut before segueing into cracks of thunder and the relentless barking of a chained-up dog, this loopy Lone Star tale actually comes by way of playwright Tracy Letts, who won a Pulitzer for August: Osage County.
Back in the days of Thompson and Williams, Letts might have won a ticket to jail for writing something like Killer Joe. (It's rated NC-17, rightfully.) Instead, he got the attention of William Friedkin, the veteran director of The French Connection and The Exorcist fame. If the former is remembered for its careening car chase beneath the El and the latter for Linda Blair's guacamole spew, then Killer Joe may be talked about down the years for a certain scene with Matthew McConaughey, Gina Gershon, and a fried chicken drumstick. It is not pretty.
McConaughey, snake-eyed, with black boots and hat, has the title role, a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a hit man. Got someone you want dead? Got $25,000?
"Killer Joe is a professional," Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) assures his dad, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church). "He'll do this right."
What they want done is the murder of Chris' mother, Ansel's ex, to collect on her life insurance. The combined IQs of the slackjawed father and son wouldn't add up to 100. And while we're doing math, the 22-year-old Chris owes mobsters $6,000. That's his impetus. Ansel lives with Sharla (Gershon) and his teenage daughter, Dottie (Juno Temple). Sharla and Ansel wouldn't mind the extra cash, and Dottie, when she overhears the plan, doesn't think it's a bad idea, either.
Sharla walks around naked from the waist down, a sneer on her lips, a furtive look in her eyes. Dottie could have been Carroll Baker's sister in Baby Doll, the overheated Tennesse Williams/Elia Kazan collaboration. In fact, Dottie still has a dollhouse, but when McConaughey's Joe Cooper comes over to talk business, he's smitten with the girl.
Although "smitten" is perhaps too romantic a word. He wants her. And when Chris can't meet Joe's payment terms, he gets her. It isn't long before Joe has moved into the trailer, too, or at least into Dottie's bedroom.
Killer Joe is twisted pulp, and the actors chew on it bravely, boldly, and with varying degrees of success. I'm not sure Hirsch, who was crushingly good as the vagabond idealist of Into the Wild, can play dumb as dumb as Chris needs to be. But McConaughey is all there as Joe, and scary as hell. Church, Paul Giamatti's big lug of a companion in Sideways, is surprisingly effective as the dim, desperate dad. Temple's Dottie is pouty and watchful, manageable like a child, until, thanks to Joe, she's a child no more. And Gershon is fearless - and funny, and then just sad. If Killer Joe is noir - and Friedkin shoots it that way, with slatted shadows and badly lit diners - then Gershon's Sharla is the movie's femme fatale.
But in Killer Joe, even the femme fatale makes some fatal miscalculations.