Lowlifes provide the high point
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, August 3, 2012
“The Exorcist” director William Friedkin messes with Texas, big time, in “Killer Joe.” A condescending tale of lowlife conspirators who are as gullible as they are homicidal, the movie begins as a pitch-black comedy. But the final act saps the humor, while more than earning the movie its rare NC-17 rating.
The misadventure begins when dumb but decisive Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) finds himself in debt to an impatient drug dealer. His solution is to kill his mother for the insurance money, which he expects will be paid to his malleable younger sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). Chris plans to split the payoff four ways, also cutting in his slow-witted father (Thomas Haden Church) and Dad’s brassy second wife (Gina Gershon).
Chris can blithely propose his own mother’s murder, but he’s not a killer. So the plotters enlist Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an icy-grinned Dallas cop with a sideline in assassination. Cooper usually insists on payment in advance, but he’s prepared to make a deal with the cash-strapped Smiths. He takes virginal Dottie as his “retainer.”
Bringing Joe into the scheme is Chris’s second big mistake, but it’s to the movie’s benefit. McConaughey turns the oily charm of his “Magic Mike” character utterly rancid, yet his performance seduces as much as it repels. Corralling a bunch of slackers, sleazes and holy fools, Joe is the devil who came down to Texas.
“Killer Joe” is hardly the first movie to depict the Lone Star State as a place for brutes and bumblers. The Coen brothers began their career on similar sod with “Blood Simple,” and several documentaries have bolstered the place’s reputation as the nation’s stupid-murder capital. “Killer Joe” also shares a disturbing enthusiasm with “The Killer Inside Me,” another recent tale of a murderous Texas police officer: Both relish showing faces being smashed to a bloody pulp.
Like Friedkin’s previous effort, the little-seen “Bug,” “Killer Joe” derives from a play by Tracy Letts, who lived in Dallas as a young man.
The story’s origins are evident from the small cast -- the intended murder victim, for example, remains off-screen -- and the emphasis on dialogue. But the veteran director balances all that talk with a sharp sequence in which Chris flees the druglord’s enforcers.
The action and dialogue find the same squalid level in time for the climactic scene, the cruel humiliation of a central character. That’s when sensitive viewers should do what the bloody-minded Joe could never imagine: Walk away from the mess he has made.
Contains graphic violence, sexual degradation, nudity, profanity and drug references.