Few films contain such a palpable mix of dark comedy and brutality as William Friedkin's Killer Joe. The film reunites Friedkin with writer Tracy Letts, who last worked together on 2006's Bug. That film was a memorable little oddity that polarized audiences. If you have the stomach for it, Killer Joe is the superior film. For Friedkin, whose career was built on successes he had decades ago, it's a roaring comeback. For the star Matthew McConaughey, it's a career renaissance. In the last year, after serving time as the go-to guy for romantic comedies, McConaughey has begun taking on more daring roles and this is his most daring yet. It's also his best performance.
Most of Killer Joe takes place in a trailer park somewhere in Texas, home of the Smiths, a family of rednecks for whom the word `philistine' was almost certainly invented. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is a drug dealer whose mother has stolen his stash and left him desperately in debt to some guys who will kill him unless he comes up with $6000. Learning of his mother's $50,000 life insurance policy for which his sister Dottie (Juno Temple) is the beneficiary, Chris approaches his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) about the prospect of having his mother killed. Not only would this solve Chris' problem, but it could lead to a big payday for Dottie, Ansel and his current wife Sharla (Gina Gershon). The person to do it is Joe Cooper (McConaughey), a Dallas detective who moonlights as a hitman. After they meet with Joe, he demands $25,000 in advance that Chris and Ansel are unable to provide. But Joe is willing to negotiate and will accept a retainer; Dottie.
There's no telling who is working against each other in the Smiths family. Although they lack any semblance of sagacity, their ignorance spawns both humor and horror. There's a sardonic glee in the way their story unfolds; we never know the length of stupidity they're capable of. The only redeeming character is Dottie, who seems mentally slower than her family (quite a feat), yet innocently more aware.
Letts' script is an adaption of his own play yet, unlike many stage adaptations, there's never a sense that this was made for the stage. One reason is Friedkin's fearless direction and the other is Caleb Deschanel's unflinching cinematography. Killer Joe was initially rated NC-17 (eventually surrendered) and it's hard to recall a film that so deserves it. This is a violent, bloody, misogynistic, and often sadistic film that basks in its lurid tendency to push the envelope. However, there's much more to Killer Joe than mere shock value. It's self-aware and crackles with great dialogue and memorable performances from everyone involved. It jumps right into the plot but slow burns with quiet intensity before erupting into total chaos, fueled mostly by McConaughey's menacing and frightening performance.
Before becoming a romantic-comedy heartthrob McConaughey appeared in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation and for all that film's shortcomings, he did an exceptional job playing crazy. Even with that performance on his resumé, who could've foretold McConaughey could deliver such a memorable performance that allows him to exploit his natural charisma and charm to play completely against type and make Joe Cooper's ferocity and stark brutality all the more shocking? The performance is so unconventional and horrifying that it won't lead him to an Oscar, but few will argue what an Oscar-caliber performance this is. The other stand-out is Church, playing a character so stupid it takes the right kind of actor to keep it from bubbling over the top. Church's comically silly facial hair and his gift for deadpan make Ansel the comic relief of the film, but he keeps the character from seeming contrived or false within the film's context. He's a gifted actor who never fails to please and surprise.
The conclusion of Killer Joe features a long scene involving McConaughey, Church, Gershon, and a chicken leg that stands out as one of the most nail-bitingly intense scenes of any film this year. It's hard to anticipate a scene more startling or suspenseful. Here McConaughey reaches deep into his acting range to show the depths of Killer Joe's (both the movie and character) depravity; this is the moment where he totally sheds the rom-com image. If the Academy were more willing to award edgy, brave performances, this moment would almost certainly win him an Oscar. It's a scene that bristles with energy and no matter how chaotic and shocking it becomes, you can't look away.
Killer Joe is a film that gets in your head and stays there. It's a shocking and powerful film that makes a devastating impact. It's certainly entertaining, but make no mistake, it's not for the faint of heart and will disgust and revolt many an audience member. It's one of the most disturbing films of 2012. It's also one of the best.