Directed by William Friedkin
The Smiths, with their generic surname, are your typical Texan family: they share and steal each other's drugs, walk around naked, pimp each other out, put out hits on each other. Ok, ok, maybe not typical, but screenwriter Tracy Letts, who adapted his own play, clearly scoffs at the idea of American family values in the brutal, darkly comic crime thriller Killer Joe, arguing instead for MASSIVE CULTURAL DEGRADATION with the crudest bunch of folksy fuck-ups he can conjure.
Letts's play feels overwrought, and director William Friedkin, helming his second Letts adaptation after 2006's Bug, works it even further: get ready for pouring rain, barking dogs, a twangy soundtrack, roadside crosses, an abandoned roller coaster, lightning bolts, and more blood and hollering than a taxicab birth. Friedkin pushes Letts's material to its zany extremes, just short of campy; that's how he gets away—in fact, scores big—with casting Matthew McConaughey, unironically, as a contract killer.
Emile Hirsch plays Chris, a low-level dealer who concocts a plan with his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) to have Chris's mother, and Ansel's ex-wife, killed for her life-insurance money: there's a cop, Joe Cooper (McConaughey, in full-bore career-reinvention), who moonlights as an assassin. Because the Smiths have no cash upfront, Cooper takes a "retainer"—Dottie (Juno Temple), Chris's sister. Courtship, murder, ass-kicking, sexual humiliation, and double-crosses ensue. The characters speak with the sharp, stylized language of the stage, much of it hilarious.
Friedkin, most famous for the unsmiling Exorcist, was a weird fit for Bug. Not that he didn't handle the movie's madness with aplomb, but he missed all the jokes: the actors made them, and Friedkin shrugged them off, let them land flat, as though he doesn't get jokes. (He has directed at least one comedy, 1983's Deal of the Century with Chevy Chase, a wet-noodle satire that's practically unwatchable and definitely not funny.) But someone must have donated a humerus, because Killer Joe retains Letts's laughs; it's practically screwball at times, trashy and vulgar.
And then, quite suddenly, it isn't funny anymore—it's astonishingly savage, degrading, violent. The Irish playwright Martin McDonagh often blends bloodshed with belly laughs, as in A Behanding in Spokane, in a way that suggests a criticism of a culture that doesn't take violence seriously. But Letts uses this juxtaposition differently, not as criticism but as a means to tease out the absurdity of ostensible normalcy. How, in the final scene, he can jump from nauseous debasement to conventional domesticity reveals the latter as bogus, exposes the vileness that undergirds it. The American family can be a horrific unit. Killer Joe reminds the Smiths of that. Killer Joe reminds us.
Opens July 27