William Friedkin's ability to translate stage plays to the big screen goes back to his 1967 Harold Pinter adaptation "The Birthday Party," but only his more recent efforts recognize the potential for matching theatricality with his dark sensibilities. "Bug," a 2007 adaptation of Tracy Letts' 1996 play, revolved around two increasingly troubled people losing their minds. Returning to Letts' depraved universe with an adaptation of his 1993 crime-tinged play "Killer Joe," Friedkin has crafted another enjoyable slice of frenzied pulp minimalism. The entire movie revolves around four characters, none of whom are particularly likable or morally adept. With an eye for gritty, shameless fun, Friedkin unleashes the play's guilty pleasure center.
The story is pure formula. Setting the stage for the southern-fried stereotypes that follow, "Killer Joe" opens in a trailer park, where druggie teen Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) wakes up his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and presents him with a twisted scheme: Hire the menacing hitman Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) to kill Chris' mother — also Ansel's ex-wife. Establishing the movie's off-kiler moral sensibilities, the walls have ears, but they don't judge: Ansel's current trashy spouse, Sharla (Gina Gerson), approves of the scheme — and so does Chris' eerily disaffected sister Dottie (Juno Temple), who nearly died when their drug-addled mom tried to kill her.
The brash anti-heroes of "Killer Joe" cluelessly head toward a predictably grim fate, but Killer Joe's arrival on the scene raises the tension and instantly kicks up the maniacal energy on the screen. Joe waltzes into the narrative as if he knows he's the star. A smooth-talking detective willing to waive his advance in favor of a pre-arranged date with Dottie, he toys with his clients while keeping his movites eerily murky. Joe's a distinctly enjoyable combination of various badass formulas, a western vigilante with a barbaric preference for domination and no apparent empathy. His tactics grow increasingly bizarre, culminating with a memorable interrogation scene in which he forces a woman to fellate a piece of fried chicken. Friedkin holds nothing back, but it's Letts' rambunctious plotting that enables the director to chart a path to the wild climax.
Even as the outrageous material and hyper-pulpy script are made palatable by the theatrical nature of the screenplay, it's tightknit cast that makes "Killer Joe" click more than anything else, their dedicated to the ridiculous task at hand on constant display. Hirsch plays a wild-eyed backcountry cliché whose tough guy ambitions are frozen in place by McConaughey's cool-headed demeanor. Church's dumb gaze and equally brash delivery render him cartoon-like, but he clearly relishes the opportunity to find his extremes. As for the women: Gershon mainly serves as a prop in place for the gleefully degrading finale, but Temple continues her bold willingness to subvert expectations by accepting a role both uncomfortably lewd and oddly empowering by the end.
For much of the time, "Killer Joe" plays like a low rent crime saga from the Coen brothers template without the complex cinematic vision, and yet even then it maintains a certain grindhouse-caliber thrill factor. As of this writing, "Killer Joe" has been identified by Wikipedia as an "American comedy film," which is sort of like calling "Pulp Fiction" a farce. [Editor's note: The page has since been updated.] Amusingly devoted to the mad energy at its core, "Killer Joe" ends with an outright ludicrous barrage of developments, but considering everything that came before, the destination is both inevitable and welcome.
criticWIRE grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? "Killer Joe" is set for a U.S. theatrical release this Friday through Liddell Entertainment. Although it faces tough commercial propositions, the current interest in McConaughey's unconventional career path should help it maintain some visibility in the marketplace over the next several weeks.
A version of this review originally ran during the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.