William Friedkin’s Killer Joe presents a solid case for invoking that old warning “not for everyone.” The 76-year-old Friedkin has brought us an in-your-face film of often brutal violence and twisted sexuality that not only wears its NC-17 rating on its sleeve, but does so with pride. There is nothing even remotely subtle about this pitch black comedy about the dimmest wits in the entire state of Texas hiring a policeman, who moonlights as a hit man, to bump off the absent matriarch of the group in order to collect on her insurance policy. To put it into some kind of perspective, the hit man is probably the least reprehensible human being in the film. It’s the sort of film that might make an audience made up of Erskine Caldwell, Tennessee Williams and Jim Thompson sit up and take notice. Yes, it’s that kind of thing — and it may well do for the fried chicken leg what Friedkin’s The Exorcist did for split-pea soup back in 1973. If nothing else, it can truly be said that age has not mellowed the director. Whether you’ll consider that a good thing may be another matter.
In an era where movies have by and large been PG-13-ified into submission to reach the largest possible audience, it’s actually refreshing to find someone boldly going as far as possible in the other direction. Here we have a filmmaker openly courting controversy — something we rarely see unless Pedro Almodóvar’s name is attached to it. This, however, is nothing like Almodóvar. This is one nasty bit of goods that wants the viewer to leave the theater knowing he or she has had an experience and, in that respect, I doubt Killer Joe is likely to disappoint. This is Friedkin at his most 1970s provocative — only maybe more so.
As with Friedkin’s last film, the little-seen Bug (2006), Killer Joe is a collaboration with playwright Tracy Letts. And again, the theatrical origins are unmistakable — and they’re all to the good. (Frankly, Friedkin seems to me at his best working from theater pieces.) The story takes place in a hellish trailer park with a burning 55-gallon drum (seemingly the equivalent of a porch light) with a barking pit bull on a chain and an always lurking thunderstorm providing a kind of chorus. (The approach is purely in the realm of the kind of “super realism” found in operatic utter stylization.) As the film opens, small-time drug dealer Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) comes calling on his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), but is greeted by his step-mother Sharla (Gina Gershon) — her lower half clad in nothing, except possibly a merkin. (Her excuse for opening the door in this state is that she didn’t know who was at the door.) Chris, it transpires, has been thrown out by his mother and is in dire need of money to pay for the cocaine she stole from him. His plan is that they pay “Killer Joe” Cooper (Matthew McConaughey in a blistering performance) to whack Mom for the insurance money that his very peculiar baby doll-like sister Dottie (Juno Temple) will receive. After all, he reasons, Mom isn’t doing anybody any good alive. Dottie agrees.
It should be simple, but it isn’t — starting with the fact that “Killer Joe” wants Dottie as a guarantee against his fee. Worse, the icily professional Joe has clearly underestimated the amassed stupidity of the Smith clan — as well as their tendency toward duplicity. I’ll say no more about the plot, but I’ll note that almost nothing goes off as expected as the film works its way to an ending that …well, this film’s content might be viewed as the sickest and bloodiest “happy” ending imaginable (depending on what you think happens next). A great deal of the film is bitterly funny, but the operative word is “bitter.” Am I recommending it? Yes, but with the warning that it will offend many. If anything, the stated reasons for the rating seem a little mild (”a scene of brutality?”). You are warned. Rated NC-17 for graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality.