Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) kills people. For $20,000, he will take care of any problem you have, permanently. That is, when he’s not tied by his day job as Dallas homicide detective. And that’s the good news. The bad news is that down-on-his-luck wannabe drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) doesn’t have enough cash up front of to hire Killer Joe to take care of his down-on-her-luck wannabe drug taker mother. So he puts up the only thing he has which Killer Joe is interested in: his 19-year-old sister Dottie (Juno Temple).
The second teaming between legendary director William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and playwright Tracy Letts is profoundly more successful than Friedkin’s adaptation of Bug some years back, and the best thing the director has put together in years. Working on a shoestring budget with a small but dedicated cast willing to completely bare themselves, body and soul, Friedkin has turned Letts’ first play into A frightening portrayal of ignorant people doing terrible things because they don’t realize how close they live to true grace.
Like most of Letts’ work, it’s filled with violence and sex in disquieting combinations as characters bounce off one another, flirting between hatred and pain and honest-to-God human connection, often within the same sentence. Letts’ dialog, like the best of the modern playwrights, digs at the edges of truth as characters in the middle of violence and murder stop to comment on what their lives mean in the context of the universe. It’s the sort of thing which the theater does all the time and which film has a tendency to hopelessly butcher, but Friedkin and his cast have found just the right level of reality to make it sound anything but contrived.
McConaughey was born to play Killer Joe, waffling quickly and easily between quiet menace and out-and-out maniac while still being able to show the human being underneath. From the first time he steps out of his Dodge Charger with his crocodile boots on, you know he’s Killer Joe, even if you don’t yet know his name. No one else has quite as much luck, as the rest of the characters are generally born-again losers, with Chris pushing the extreme edge of pathos to the point where it almost seems hard to care about him, as his flaws verge on the cliché. It’s only Letts’ deft talent for characterization that keeps things from getting that bad.
That said, Killer Joe can’t quite get away from its theatrical roots; with so much of the action taking place in the family trailer home and often devolving to just two people talking in a room, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re watching an actual play instead of a movie. That slight bit of staginess is one of the few flaws in Friedkin’s film.
Part of that is out of his hands — with little to work with, he has gone for a scaled-down, minimalist aesthetic that keeps the focus firmly on the characters, even when it drifts into its NC-17 areas. There is, as you might expect, copious nudity and violence in Killer Joe, and yet it never feels exploitative, even when that’s clearly the feel it is going for.
A little more time and a little more money might have turned Killer Joe into something truly great. Or it might have ruined it, overwhelming the delicate chemistry with surface glitter. We’ll never know. What we do know is that Friedkin has lost none of his chops, Letts’ dialogue remains sharp even 20 years after the play was written, and with the right material, McConaughey is capable of real art. The end result? Well, it’ll kill you.
Cast: Matthew McConaughey as Killer Joe Cooper; Emile Hirsch as Chris Smith; Juno Temple as Dottie Smith; Thomas Haden Church as Ansel; Gina Gershon as Sharla; Marc Macaulay as Digger Soames.