Killer Joe is trash. Not bad trash. Not pretentious trash. Just plain old ugly, funny, and sophisticated trash. William Friedkin‘s stage adaptation of Tracy Letts stage play is not as accomplished as their previous collaboration, Bug, but it’s definitely more unhinged and surpasses many of its fellow genre brethren. If you thought Bug was “crazy,” just wait until you get to Killer Joe‘s final minutes of magical brutality.
Before we get there, however, what we’re served is a fairly conventional story that only makes that final act all the more satisfying. As with Bug, Killer Joe does not follow the cleanliest of people. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), a young and annoying hick, wants to do what all good sons aspire for: kill his mother who sold his drugs. Said mother, a woman Chris and his sister despise, holds a life insurance check that would payoff 50,000 dollars, so the young lead and his family decide to claim it.
Chris and his even more empty-minded father, Ansel – played hilariously and with a small hint of sadness by Thomas Haden Church – hire Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to take care of her. Cooper, a cop who does killings on the side, takes the job, but under unique circumstances. Since Chris and Ansel are not capable of paying his fee up front, he takes a retainer: Chris’s sister. Dottie isn’t all there and, like a beautiful trashy princess, is waiting to be taken away from her family. Who comes to the rescue? Joe Cooper, the man with raging sociopathic tendencies but a clear sense of rules and manners. This mention of the titular Killer Joe now brings us to what is Killer Joe‘s true visceral and intriguing weapon: Matthew McConaughey.
Last year many declared The Lincoln Lawyer his best performance in years. While that was true then, his Joe Cooper could very well be his most finely-tuned piece of acting yet, in close competition with the untouchable machismo he showed off in Reign of Fire. The casting of McConaughey is rather inspired; he’s got a likable presence and charm, but here those hospitable character traits go along with crazy, romantic, and a beast of nature. When Joe Cooper politely informs a character he’ll cut off their face and wear it, McConaughey makes you believe he’ll do it.
Despite his calm and oddball sense of humor, there’s a quiet rage McConaughey shows in Joe that’s always brewing and ready to get unleashed. The character doesn’t want to get violent, but he will if he sees fit. And when he does, it’s comical and visceral; this is a character who will go as far as he has to. Joe Cooper’s the kind of guy who’s clearly aware of the effect he has on people, and throughout the film he takes advantage of that, especially over the boyish Chris. By the end, Joe Cooper becomes the hero of the film. He is not a straight hero or an antihero, he is villain who happens to stumble into the shoes of the hero at the end. It’s a great turn that not only pumps up McConaughey’s performance, but also the rich tones and themes of the film.
The only one who can keep up with what McConaughey is up to is Thomas Haden Church, who adds a refreshing amount of depth to the “dumb brute hick” cliché. By the end, after all the idiotic crap he and his wife have committed, this actor reminds you that we’re looking at a real person, not Cleetus from The Simpsons. It comes from a small – and, oddly, kind of touching – moment between Ansel and his broken wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon), where we see his eyes slightly tear up upon asking if she’s alright.
The rest of the cast does fine work, but it’s McConaughey and Church who emerge most fully from Friedkin’s dirty tale of what happens when morons make truly moronic decisions. But despite Killer Joe’s trashy demeanor and characters, its got a few ideas in its deranged head, while still retaining the impressive stylistic touches we expect from William Friedkin. He’s not afraid to shove your face into someone human ugliness – in ways that you’ll either love or hate – and, early on, you’ll be fully aware if this is your kind of a film. For myself, it most certainly is.
The Upside: Doesn’t pull any punches: watching McConaughey and Church play off each other; grows better and smarter with time; isn’t afraid to act silly; the last ten minutes.
The Downside: You know from frame one Chris doesn’t stand a chance against Joe; a dream sequence; plods at times.
On The Side: You’ll get the “drumstick” title bit when you see the film; the NC-17 rating is ridiculous.