Cooped up uneasily in a Texas trailer home strewn with beer cans and lit up by a TV screen glowing 24/7, the whole damn family is mean and screwy as mad dogs in the bloody black comedy/horror show Killer Joe. Years before his 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning wacky-family drama, August: Osage County, playwright Tracy Letts debuted with this nasty 1993 play. It tells the story of a loser in debt (Emile Hirsch), his sexy-virginal younger sister (Juno Temple), their stupid, spineless father (Thomas Haden Church), his slutty, cheating wife (Gina Gershon), and a sick slickster of an hombre (Matthew McConaughey, in his second riveting performance of the year, following Magic Mike) who supplements his police-detective day job as a killer for hire.
Enter feisty old French Connection director William Friedkin, who tuned in so well to Letts’ wavelength when he adapted his play Bug in 2006. Ceaselessly torrential rain, an actual mad dog straining at a chain, a woman’s face smeared with blood and mascara after a graphic bashing, a bucket of fried chicken used for climactically nauseating effect — there’s not an image too noir for Friedkin’s curiously avid interest or cinematographer Caleb Deschanel’s visual precision. And the cast responds accordingly. Church does a dandy job of embodying dumb and useless manhood; Gershon goes to town in the dirty role of the story’s appointed bitch.
Killer Joe throws down a dare by expecting its audience to be the cool connoisseurs of the story’s “comic” outrageousness, then rubbing viewers’ faces in close-up scenes of brutality that reasonable people ought not to be able to watch. That up-close experience, however effectively done, is a movie specialty that’s its own kind of mean. C