Killer Joe’s opening credits gives us the heads up that we are seeing the second collaboration between writer Tracy Letts and Director William Friedkin—the first joint effort produced Bug. Sporting an NC-17 rating due to some full frontal rampant nudity and graphic sex, Killer Joe has an even weirder vibe that hangs over the entire flick.Here the writing/directing duo tries to recapture the critical acclaim of Bug with this screwed up potboiler, but Killer Joe only half translates to film. The whole viewing time I was wishing I were watching the play on which it is based and not this mostly defective film. What’s weird is that, even for all its flaws, the film left a haunting memory. Replaying scenes in my head and the strange, warped, uncomfortable feeling I got from watching this flick has somehow morphed into the same feeling of recalling a dream, like, ‘did that really happen?’
The plot is pretty far fetched but allows some diabolical fun. A supremely dysfunctional family gets wind of a detective (Matthew McConaughey) who moonlights as a hit man. They want the matriarch of the family dead so they can rake in the cash from her insurance policy. The plot then reels into minor subtext about what makes messed up people tick, rather worrying about the logistics of believability.
Reveling in demented glee, McConaughey seems to be having as much fun as he did in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. His detective relates with soft-spoken terror a menacing monster capable of torture and humiliation. However, I focused more on the fact that he whistles when he says words that end in the letter “s.” At first, all the acting felt off kilter and forced, except for Gina Gershon and Juno Temple who are both excellent. Then I actually put my finger on it halfway through. I wanted someone other than Thomas Haden Church and Emile Hirsh as the lead actors because there was something inherently wrong with their delivery. The best guy in the whole flick was Marc Macaulay, a solid character actor since the ’80s with 134 movies and/or TV episodes under his belt. Macauley gives us scene-stealing screen time that indelibly smears the mind.
Director Friedkin juices up this flick with some great locations, nice bloodletting and insanely wrong sexual situations. The assault of vindictiveness corresponds with how the characters feel about themselves. Unfortunately, in so doing they lose focus of what’s happening on screen one too many times and that proves too distracting.
After a ton of disjointed weird dialogue, mounting danger, sexual innuendo and some mistake-ridden editing, the third act of the movie gets extremely engrossing. It will make you forgive the questionable acting and the cavernous loopholes. The unanswered questions start to fall into place. It’s here the dysfunctionality goes brutal and turbo. We begin to witness certain things that baffle, shock, titillate and disgust. It’s a climax that almost makes the wait worth it.
Morbidity and lurid pleasure are batted around like softball practice, and there are some really quotable take-home lines like calling Colonel Sanders’ grub “K FRY C” or when Gershon is told she is “fumigating the gates of hell” after spraying on too much perfume.
Killer Joe is one slow burn toward an inevitable “didn’t-see-all-of-that-coming” ending. When all is said and done, this tall Texas tale coming from an Oklahoma playwright and served up by the director of The French Connection is a prime example of hit-and-miss filmmaking. It’s a film that’s not likely to hang around long at the box office, but will linger in your mind.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Marc Macaulay
Directed by William Friedkin