Killer Joe finally opens in East Bay theaters this week, with an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. That rating is so rarely used in mainstream releases that it immediately piqued our interest. What could it be that earned William Friedkin’s crime drama a “No One 17 and Under Admitted” label?
It doesn’t take long to find out. The film begins with a young man named Chris (Emile Hirsch) banging on the sides of a mobile home in the pouring rain. He’s greeted at the door by an eye-level view of Gina Gershon’s naked mons pubis. Gershon plays Chris’ stepmother, Sharla, and her full-frontal nudity is only the opening salvo in director Friedkin and writer Tracy Letts’ piéce de rèsistance, the most extreme item, so far, in this year’s procession of upscale-pedigree sex ‘n’ violence pics. Yet aside from the graphic scenes of brutality and body parts, Killer Joe is noteworthy on its own terms.
Playwright-actor-screenwriter Letts, whose adaptation of his play Bug for Friedkin was one of the cinematic highlights of 2006, has a taste for hardscrabble melodrama and trailer-trash burlesque clowning, Texas-style. The charming little family he draws for us here is caught on the horns of a dilemma. Ansel Smith (Thomas Haden Church), dim-bulb father of Chris and twelve-year-old Dottie (English actress Juno Temple), and his wife Sharla are short on funds, and have come to the conclusion that murdering Chris and Dottie’s offscreen mother for her insurance money is the way to go. Their plans are a little hazy, like their organizational skills. Hot-headed Chris, in desperate need of cash to pay off his gambling debts, suggests hiring Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas police officer who moonlights as a hit man, to grease the unwanted matriarch. Bloody, salacious miscues multiply from there.
McConaughey dominates the action the minute he strides into the frame in his black western gear and contemptuous sneer. It’s been a memorable year for the one-time pretty-boy star of Amistad and The Wedding Planner. McConaughey’s performance as the slick DA in Bernie — another darkly humorous Texas crime story — now seems like a rehearsal for his Killer Joe, a depraved hustler with eyes for young Dottie and whatever collateral swag he can score. As Friedkin has noted, McConaughey would never be cast in a film like this in his romantic comedy days. The change of mood suits him. He wears Joe’s sleaziness lightly, as if it doesn’t really matter.
The Smith family is no match for this killer. Dad Ansel delights in monster-truck TV. Stepmom Sharla deals in sweeping generalizations and tight tops. Chris’ rabbit-farm speech reminds us of Lenny in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Adjectives like “slow” and “impaired” come to mind. This also applies to the film’s most ambiguous character, Dottie, the catalyst, the bait, the childlike cipher of unknown depth. According to Letts, Dottie is “the keeper of all feminine rage,” but to us, she’s a walking advertisement for family planning. Watch your step around her. Congratulations to Church, Gershon, Hirsch, and especially Temple, a 23-year-old who can play twelve convincingly — a dream ensemble for a nightmare scenario.
Friedkin, legendary director of The French Connection and The Exorcist, has been making the rounds taking questions and spilling anecdotes for preview audiences on behalf of his new movie. He sees Killer Joe as a kind of Cinderella story in which Dottie’s Prince Charming is a hit man. That may be. The film was evidently shot in twenty days with no rehearsals (“I believe more in spontaneity than in perfection”), and displays Friedkin’s knack for handling actors. According to him, there are three ways of presenting sex and violence: 1) Don’t show it; 2) Do it subtly; or 3) Serve it up raw. Nothing in wide release this year is quite so raw, or so satisfying. It succeeds as a rare combination of glib, deep-genre writing, perfect casting, and the sort of directorial vision that can see through a gut-bucket Grand Guignol and perceive it as a fairy tale. Friedkin’s twisty-turny career, 47 years and running, shows no signs of slackening. Killer Joe is one the best films of 2012.