Meet the Smiths, the most odious family this side of the Manson clan. There's young Chris, whose dealer is fixing to kill him because Chris' momma flushed $6,000 worth of drugs down the drain. His spaced-out sister Dottie is a naïve, nubile pixie who hasn't been quite right since momma tried to suffocate her. Ansel is the paterfamilias, a man of invincible stupidity, and evil stepmother Sharla is the raunchiest biped ever to inhabit their Texas trailer park. There's a consensus that all their problems would be solved if they could get their hands on momma's $50,000 life insurance policy. That's where Killer Joe comes in.
You will either love "Killer Joe" or run away screaming. I absorbed this NC-17 nail bomb with awestruck admiration. It is a high comedy of low taste, a work of blood-spattered skill and conviction made by people sick of timid studio pabulum.
"Killer Joe" takes horror and criminality and translates them into subversive comedy. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts provided the sardonic screenplay about a knot of characters trapped in a vise of need and folly. The ever-more-interesting Matthew McConaughey signed on for the title role, a courtly, cocksure, offhandedly vicious Dallas police detective who sidelines as a hit man. Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon are ideal as knuckle-dragging Ansel, who is several beats late in following every development, and his sexpot wife, who is not as crafty as she thinks she is. Emile Hirsch plays pipsqueak Chris with transparent false bravado, and Juno Temple provides Dottie with a space-cadet ambiguity. We're never sure whether her vacant smile reflects innocence or nymphet depravity. Every performer tackles a tricky, emotion-straddling role with assurance.
The film is crafted with ferocious tension and unexpected humor by William Friedkin, the Oscar-winning director of "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist." Friedkin digs deep into the texture of his settings. Every location but the Smiths' claustrophobic trailer is authentic. The film is a gallery of derelict no-hope Americana. The ghastly sprawling strip joint, abandoned one-table pool hall and dilapidated amusement park where the characters meet reek despair that no set designer could conjure. Friedkin's you-are-there earthiness grounds the story, whose twists are absurd to the point of surrealism.
To say the Smiths' homicidal scheme does not go as planned is an understatement. Joe, who initially wanted no extracurricular contact with his clients, changes his mind when he sees virginal Dottie, and insists that she stay with him as his "retainer." To her cash-strapped father, that sounds like good value. Moving into the family's orbit, Joe begins acting like a gentleman caller, but he leaves no doubt about who's in charge. He takes command with insinuating courtesy and an intimidating capacity for violence. He's the sort of natural-born leader who can get the family to hold hands for grace before supper, then commit an act of sexual aggression with a chicken leg. This deep-fried sociopath inspires the most controlled, and most outrageous, performance of McConaughey's career. If he doesn't make your skin crawl, it's on too tight.
The pressure cooker boils until the climactic freakout, a "Jerry Springer" brawl that shreds whatever sense of propriety viewers might still be clinging to. I don't think everyone is ready for this film, but I strongly encourage those who have read this far. It'll be a long time before you see another movie like this, if ever.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186