Fried chicken will never again look quite so appetizing after seeing William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe”….a gothic Southern noir that provides Matthew McConaughey with his best role to date. His performance recalls that of Robert Mitchum in “Night of the Hunter”….not only in its physicality (black Stetson, black clothes) but in its psycho-intensity.
McConaughey’s astounding performance is one of the reasons to see this violent tale of family dysfunction and sadistic revenge. The other reason is the startlingly poetic dialogue by Tracy Letts who wrote the screenplay from his own stage play. Friedkin (“The French Connection”, “The Exorcist”) has worked with Letts before on a smaller, claustrophobic horror called “Bug” but here, he opens up the work and brings us a Texas trailer trash thriller that doesn’t scream of the theatre, yet revels in theatricality.
McConaughey as the eponymous Joe is a Dallas detective who moonlights as a contract killer. The pulp story is as dark and twisted as any noir potboiler and involves a con-man son (Emile Hirsch) conspiring to have his no-good mother killed in order to get his hands on her life insurance money. Joining him in this sick endeavor is his father (a marvelous Thomas Haden Church), his father’s sluttish second wife (Gina Gershon) and his teenage sister Dottie (Juno Temple). Friedkin emphasizes Dottie’s baby doll innocence among the depravity by first showing her sleeping curled up among her teddy bears. Traded to Joe as collateral, Dottie is the purity at the heart of the insanity but may not be as naïve as she makes out to be.
Rated NC-17 for extreme violence and sexual depravity (I imagine the sexually charged scene between Joe and Dottie to be the real hurdle for the MPAA), “Killer Joe” is not easy viewing. One particular brutal scene of degradation calls to mind Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet” and will likely live on to be as memorable and iconic.
We’ve seen characters like these killing and maiming and abusing before, yet there is something in Letts’ dialogue that lends them a novel freshness. They merit our attention. And if it’s hard to see Matthew McConaughey as a leading romantic man after this? Then he’s done his job well.
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