After a severely screwy career, French Connection and Exorcist director William Friedkin has earned a late-career renaissance by hooking up with Pulitzer-fêted playwright Tracy Letts. That he’s done this by tackling Letts’ early, questionable work makes the achievement all the more impressive. Early Friedkin includes muscular theatrical adaptations (Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, Mart Crowely’s The Boys in the Band), and he’s worked similar visceral wonders on Letts’ Bug and now Killer Joe, a redneck burlesque that often feels like it could have been mounted on The Jerry Springer Show.
Double Indemnity as misappropriated by warm beer- and monster truck-obsessed yokels, Letts’ first produced work finds fuckup Texan trailer-trash scion Chris (Emile Hirsch) in deep to a local kingpin, hiring detective-cum-assassin Joe (Matthew McConaughey) to off his mother for the insurance payout. When neither he nor his lunkheaded pop (Thomas Haden Church) can pay Joe’s upfront fee, Joe suggests “using” Chris’ obscurely traumatized sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as retainer, a pact that would be sketchy enough without Chris’ vague incestuous bent.
The majority of Killer Joe’s press has understandably gravitated toward Matthew McConaughey—in the midst of the comeback tour that began with Bernie and Magic Mike —and the various trashy transgressions committed by and against Gina Gershon, who plays Chris’ two-timing stepmother. McConaughey is as great as you’ve heard: sinister, coiled, instantly washing away a career till now wasted on Kate Hudson and ilk. Gershon, meanwhile, is introduced bush-first, a succinct summary of the kind of material into which the audience will sink.
That still in no way prepares you for the genuinely shocking act she will eventually perform on a piece of KFC, a dubious attention-grab designed to make the film “talked about.” It succeeds in that respect, though few are gabbing about Letts’ mangled plotting or his questionable point (rednecks are stupid, more or less). Still, execution can trump material, and Killer Joe boasts Friedkin’s exacting direction—including amusingly incongruous use of Clarence Carter’s “Strokin’”—and a cast almost as strong as McConaughey. Voters at year’s end ought not to forget Church’s inspired interpretation of patchy facial haired idiocy and Marc Macauley’s disarming good ol’ boy drug kingpin, who will slap your back before threatening to bury you in electrical wire.
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