At one point in Killer Joe, a hideously funny tabloid noir set on the outskirts of Dallas County, Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is let into the family double-wide by a relation whose face has just been pummeled into a Rorschach blot of dried gore. He doesn’t stop to ask what happened, doesn’t even miss a beat—such is the milieu of casual violence in which the film takes place, where it’s easy to slip imperceptibly into perdition.
After his alcoholic wreck of a mother steals the cocaine he was supposed to sell, Chris finds himself in the red to some bad men, so one rainy night, he comes to the trailer that his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), shares with his slatternly town-pump stepmother, Sharla (Gina Gershon). Chris has a plan to pay back the bad men while having something left over for everybody: Kill Momma and collect on the life insurance policy she has made over to teenage daughter Dottie (Juno Temple, a peroxided sprite who’s more than a little touched). To do so, they enlist the services of “Killer Joe” Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a West Dallas detective who moonlights as a hired killer. The Smiths don’t have money for a down payment, but they have something more precious: This is an environment that quickly tarnishes anything fresh and innocent, and Dottie is a virgin.
Killer Joe, which follows this deal-with-the-devil barter through to its inevitable result, was first written for the stage by Tracy Letts, a Pulitzer Prize winner for 2007’s August: Osage County. William Friedkin directs for the screen, adapting his second Letts play, after 2006’s Bug, which starred Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon in the role he originated onstage.
Shannon was also Letts’s first Chris Smith, ably filled in for by Hirsch, but the showpiece role is Joe. McConaughey, as with many a handsome actor heretofore content to gigolo along on his looks until approaching ruminative middle age, has begun to show new depths, perhaps spurred by a sense of mortality encouraging discretion in his roles, as the paycheck for a Reign of Fire no longer outweighs the spiritual attrition. (This turnabout includes not only heads-up roles in auteur films like Bernie and Magic Mike, but also solid work in a middle-range genre flick like The Lincoln Lawyer.) “His eyes hurt,” says Dottie of Joe, and indeed they do, while the click of Joe’s Zippo sounds like an unsheathed dagger. In repose, Joe’s smooth face seems almost embalmed in its composure, as uncannily still as one of those 19th-century photographs of the posed, unburied dead.
Killer Joe presents an inversion of The Night of the Hunter, in which the interloping father—for his cop/killer, McConaughey has certainly studied the psychopath suavity of Robert Mitchum’s preacher/killer—is actually welcomed by a family that knows no rule except might makes right. There’s a cross over the Smith’s door, and Dottie talks in a familiar enough way about Christ, but there’s no sense of contrition here, no moral center in an unbuckled Bible Belt without God—or a father. In contrast to pin-neat Joe is Haden Church, the alcoholic, twice-cuckolded failed patriarch of the Smith family, who wears a straggling beard that might have grown out from his last bad shave a month ago. With his hewn profile and ineffectual bulkiness, Ansel is the personification of lug, and every line reading drops with a hysterical thwunk. (Note is also due to character actor Marc Macaulay as the small-talking, back-slapping good ol’ boy whom Chris owes.)
Letts and Shannon’s first success, Killer Joe was written in 1991, and it feels like a work of juvenilia. This is not necessarily a knock; the raving insistence on dragging the audience into a savage side of life gives the material a perennial by-the-collar directness, and Friedkin, a son of Chicago’s working-class South Side who has swerved back and forth over the thin blue line of order and chaos throughout his career, is a fine fit to the material.
Friedkin has also been a consistent envelope pusher, most famously with 1973’s floridly blasphemous The Exorcist, and Killer Joe contains one particular scene that is as difficult as any I’ve seen. It is not, however, egregious—in fact, it synthesizes Joe’s double life as cop and killer, revolving around the horrible discord that occurs when interrogation-room psychological warfare is unleashed in a domestic setting. An implant scars-and-all trip into the lower depths, Killer Joe will be accused of gloating morbidity or condescension, but this is only the familiar line of dismissive defense by delicate souls who pretend they don’t believe such things happen when really they’d rather not be reminded that they do.
Letts’s balance of irony and empathy, in fact, continues to impress. What made Bug such an under-your-skin movie—it is, literally and figuratively—was its understanding of the proximity of the familiar and the unutterable. It’s the story of a couple who, holed up in a motel room, immure themselves in a mutually reinforced world of paranoid delusion that leads into a tailspin of self-destruction, but underneath the grotesquerie, precisely the same claustrophobic logic that has fueled many a toxic relationship is visible. Most of us have been bad for another person; most of us have, like the Smiths, thought we were a lot smarter than we actually were and learned the same home truth that they do: “You’ve made your bed . . .”