Written by Tracy Letts
Directed by William Friedkin
Killer Joe Cooper...Matthew McConaughey
Chris Smith...Emile Hirsch
Dottie Smith...Juno Temple
Ansel Smith...Thomas Hayden Church
Sharla Smith...Gina Gershon
Small time drug dealer Chris Smith owes some money to some very bad people, and if he doesn't come up with it soon, he is going to die. Being the creative type, he comes up with a plan that involves somebody else dying so that he can collect on the life insurance policy. That somebody just so happens to be his mother, who stole his cocaine, thus causing the debt that Chris finds himself in.
It seems his mama doesn't have much of a fan club, as Chris's father Ansel, sister Dottie, and step-mother Sharla are all in on the plan. Who can't use a little extra pocket change?
They draft the services of "Killer" Joe Cooper, a police officer who moonlights as a hitman. Killer Joe normally collects his money up front, but in this case he's willing to make an exception...so long as he can take Dottie as a "retainer".
This film is billed as a Southern Gothic, but I'd say it goes beyond that. This is White Trash Gothic, filled to the brim with perfectly deplorable characters, lurid situations, pitch black humor, sudden violence, and sexual perversions like you wouldn't believe. Although the first half of the film features far less action than I would have expected--indeed, the actual hit job takes place entirely offscreen--I was never once bored. There was more than enough other depravity to keep my deviant attention piqued.
The characters here are all pretty despicable, and there's not really a single person to root for. Chris is a low rent criminal who, it is heavily implied, has had sexual interactions with his sister. Ansel is a dirty redneck type, who buys drugs from his son and is more than willing to let Chris take his lumps until he found out that he could get a cut of the cash. Sharla is a harlot without borders, who cheats on her husband and answers the front door wearing only a tee-shirt, her vagina on full display (hell, in a screen wide close up!). Dottie is, without question, the most sympathetic character here. She's adorable and offbeat and, quite possibly, a little brain damaged. She is the lifelong victim, easily manipulated and readily used. Despite the fact that she is just as guilty as the others, she somehow maintains an air of innocence throughout.
All of the cast members do great jobs here, all solid professionals, but it is Matthew McConaughey who really brings the white lightning. His character is as sadistic, depraved, and ugly as any lowlife that has ever been captured on film, but it is all portrayed in a icily cool and controlled way. Much has been made of his performance by mainstream critics, calling it "unexpected" and "brave", and while it is true that he is typically cast as the affable leading man in romantic comedies, we genre fans have always known that he is capable of playing the psychotic and the sociopathic. He was fantastic in the underrated Frailty, and the only thing worthwhile as the terrifying Vilmer Slaughter in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.
Although a thoroughly enjoyable film--in a guilty, need-a-shower kind of way--it's not without its flaws. There is too much left unsaid and unexplored about Dottie: does she have some latent psychic ability? What kind of abuse has she suffered? And just what the hell is wrong with her, anyway?
The plot is a little thin, and wouldn't be nearly as watchable if not for the strong performances or the innate desire to slow down and rubberneck at the wreckage.
Too much happens offscreen for my tastes, too. Beyond the murder, there's another pivotal event we don't get to witness--when Killer Joe, in his official capacity, pulls a certain somebody over towards the end of the film. What happens next is never shown and never explained, but it results in Joe getting his hands on a mighty McGuffin. How did Joe know to pursue this character? I have no idea. (Sorry for the vagueness, but I'm shooting for spoiler free here).
There is quite a bit of nudity here, but none of it attractive. There is also sex, but none of it is sexy. There is a sickeningly perverse scene involving a piece of fried chicken and Gina Gershon's unwilling mouth that is sure to shock even the hardened viewer.
It's more exploitation than it is art, but until someone perfects the artsploitation recipe, this will do just fine.
"That's not appropriate dinner conversation."