Tracy Letts’ searing stage thriller “Killer Joe” comes to the screen with all its nervous laughs, its jittery fear and sexual sweat intact. It’s yet another showcase for the new and improved Matthew McConaughey — in the title role — and a breakout opportunity for Juno Temple, as the odd, seemingly slow-witted object of Killer Joe’s desire.
And it is the best movie of the summer.
The Pulitzer-prize winning playwright (“August: Osage County”) is well-served by the veteran director William “The French Connection” Friedkin, who opens the show up and takes this Texas Gothic tale out of doors, into the dives, underpasses and trailer parks of an ugly, venal and violent underclass. But much of it takes place on one location, a nasty trailer filled with treachery, frustration, stained with sex, blood and fried chicken before all is said and done.
An antic Emile Hirsch is Chris, a kid who owes the wrong people money. That gets him thinking he can cash in his hated momma’s life insurance policy. He just needs somebody to kill her.
If he can get his dope of a muffler-repairman dad — played by Thomas Haden Church with the perfect blend of clueless and scary — on board.
“This is MURDER we’re talkin’ about,” Dad says. “I’m no just standing around here nodding my head.”
But that money — and it’s not all that much, anyway — has them all dreaming big (limited) dreams — Chris, Dad, Dad’s trashy-waitress wife (Gina Gershon, spot on). Life will be better…without Momma.
Dottie, Chris’s sister, is the wild card in all of this. She’s slow, never quite keeping up with the conversation, never quite wearing enough clothes. Juno Temple is stunning as this modernized, oversexed take on Tennessee William’s “Baby Doll,” with Dottie suggesting sexual curiousity, naivete and guile beneath her “slow” exterior.
Chris has heard of a dirty cop who does murder for hire — Killer Joe — given a cold, calculating and fearsome swagger by McConaughey. He’s quiet and still as he lets the rubes who’re hiring him know the rules.
Dottie, the sexy savant, sizes him up in a flash.
“His eyes hurt.”
Needless to say, things don’t go as planned, the rubes try to think their way out of a jam and Joe, who is all kinds of twisted, takes Dottie as collateral. That’s when matters get seriously out of hand.
Letts created vivid, ignorant characters torn up with fear, greed, and guilt. Friedkin may take us to crime scenes, mob lender shakedowns, a muffler shop and a diner, but he makes the walls close in when we’re trapped in that trailer with these trashy folk.
“Killer Joe” is a violent, erotically-charged film that will leave you in slack-jawed awe at the characters, the plot, the dialogue and the just plain “How did they get away with THAT?” of it all. It earns its NC-17.
MPAA Rating:NC-17 for graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Juno Temple, Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church
Credits: Directed by William Friedkin, written by Tracy Letts, based on his play. An LD Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:43