Hilariously Cringe Worthy
Never before have a weaponized can of pumpkin pie filling and a sexualized leg of KFC dark meat been used to such hilariously cringe-worthy NC-17 effect as in Killer Joe, the latest collaboration between Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin and playwright Tracy Letts. Come to think of it though, recalling his little pea soup trick in The Exorcist, Friedkin has a knack for turning everyday food items into the most vile and disgusting stuff you’ll never want to see, touch, or taste again.
Friedkin and Letts last collaborated on the underrated little claustrophobic thriller called Bug back in 2006, and like in that film, the pair’s Killer Joe has a slight bit of trouble escaping the confines of its theatrical roots, but ultimately finds a way to use its minimalist aesthetics to its advantage. Friedkin and Letts have concocted a garish, provocative little black comedy that puts a modern-day, twisted spin on a classic fairy-tale. Friedkin is one of the most decorated hardly-working filmmakers in the biz today, having only put out a dozen or so pedestrian films since his The Exorcist turned Hollywood’s head nearly forty years ago, but now his mojo is back.
Killer Joe revolves around a sick moneymaking scheme that would seem all too outlandish were it not something we’ve grown accustomed to hearing about in the news on a daily basis. Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a 22-year-old trailer park urchin who concocts a plan to have his mother murdered for her $50,000 insurance policy by enlisting the help of a hired killer known as Joe Cooper (Matthew MacConoughey), who also happens to be on the Dallas police force working as a homicide detective.
Chris’s clan and co-conspirators consist of his drunken dad, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) who has since divorced the object of the contract, his slutty step-mom Sharla (Gina Gershon) who is as comfortable out of clothes as in, and his fragile younger china doll of a sister named Dottie (Juno Temple) who becomes the lynchpin of the entire movie. Since Chris doesn’t have the $25,000 necessary to facilitate the contract with Joe, Chris puts up his young teen-aged sister as a sort of down payment for the job. Joe and his hostage begin to develop an unusual bond that takes on a kind of prince and his Cinderella relationship.
It probably goes without saying that the plan comes completely apart since we’re not dealing with the brightest minds in the world. This unravelling descent into madness that grinds to a climactic screeching halt over a bucket of greasy fried chicken becomes the film’s highlight however, as there always seems to be plenty of laughs and enjoyment to be mined from the stupidity of others.
Plus, the dialogue-rich scenes that come from the pen of Letts create a fertile environment for some amazing performances… and no one disappoints. McConaughey is perfect in a role that continues a hot streak that goes back a few years to his turn in The Lincoln Lawyer. The guy is all money right now, and here he manages to find his character’s enigmatic moral duality as a charming, soft-spoken, and eloquent gentleman on the one hand, but a stone-cold, calculating killer with some alarming sexual proclivities on the other. Church plays his typical bumbling idiot that he does so well, and Juno Temple is absolutely spectacular as the childish, yet wise-beyond-her-years Dottie.
But the big star of the show -- and its heart and soul really -- is the hand of Friedkin that manages to get the story’s darkly sardonic tone just right, a skill that so often trips up less experienced directors. The 76-year-old filmmaker infuses the proceedings with a fresh, young Tarantino-esque vibe that makes us laugh while covering our faces in shocked horror. There’s a lot of nasty stuff going on in Killer Joe (some of it almost unbearable to watch) but we’re also afraid to turn our heads to the unflinching truths of the tragic social commentary.
Killer Joe is a tale of white-trash immorality, of these morally dubious characters, yet Friedkin manages to make us recognize that there is still some kind of integrity back in the corner of their souls. In other words, we still like the characters despite their blasphemous behavior. The movie hits an original strike zone in which the sex and violence are ridiculously over the top, yet we find delight, laughter and enjoyment from our comfortable distance.
(Released by Independent Pictures and rated “NC-17” by MPAA.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.