For anyone familiar with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor Tracy Letts' dark, moody, and typically violent yet sometimes-hilarious work, then the thought of William Friedkin ('The Exorcist,' 'The French Connection') helming an unrated (or NC-17-rated) film version of 'Killer Joe,' with Matthew McConaughey portraying the titular Joe, might be of considerable interest. Of course, this isn't the first time Letts and Friedkin's creative paths have crossed, as the two collaborated in 2006 on 'Bug' – Letts' discomforting tale of paranoia and body horror, which starred Ashley Judd and a then little-known actor by the name of Michael Shannon.
Though seemingly more up the alley of a director like, say, David Cronenberg, 'Bug' hinted at the kind of unflinching peeks into psychosis, paranoia and violence that Friedkin was capable of, and, clearly, provided a foundation that would see him partner with Letts on 'Killer Joe.' Unlike 'Bug,' this is a completely different animal: a pseudo-homage/send-up of Southern gothic-noir, with satirical glimpses into trailer-park America and needs of the deliberately down-and-out to always back, and cling to, what they perceive to be a winner.
Dipped in a not-so-simple plot of insurance-fraud-by-way-of-premeditated-murder, 'Killer Joe,' at once reminds viewers of the Billy Wilder noir-classic, 'Double Indemnity,' but where that film was steeped in the culture of the time (Fred MacMurray is a long way from Matthew McConaughey), and a certain kind of expectedly clever screenplay from Wilder and Raymond Chandler, 'Killer Joe' isn't looking to adorn itself with a similar façade of dark charm or artful ambiguity, but rather it gleefully rolls around in the squalid setting of a Texas trailer-park and delights in the myriad ways it can further exploit an already exploitative narrative. Almost immediately, audiences get more than they bargained for, and the film makes a declarative statement by introducing the unclothed southern hemisphere of Gina Gershon's character Sharla, as a means of introducing the character herself. But it works; from that moment on, the over-the-top sleaziness of Letts' screenplay can never be questioned, and whatever he and Friedkin put on screen may take the audience to some rather uncomfortable places, but they just can't be described as unexpected.
As with any good noir, the film begins by illustrating the basis of its set-up, or crime, through which the characters' motivations are made clear. In this case, it almost universally revolves around greed. 'Killer Joe' opens up with Emile Hirsch's Chris Smith banging on the door of his boneheaded father's doublewide, begging to be let in out of the rain on account his mother recently threw him out of her place. As Chris explains to his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), he's in debt to some local, albeit colorful, gangsters for a few thousand dollars, but following a brief conversation with his mother's new boyfriend, Rex, news of a $50,000 life-insurance policy surfaces, as well as the name of a certain sociopathic someone who'd be willing to bump mom off – for a hefty price of course.
Hungry to get their hands on some real cash, the Smith clan makes a deal with Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to do the deed, but come up short on the $25,000 advance payment needed to set things in motion. With the clock ticking on both his debt and his life, Chris reluctantly agrees to keep Joe on retainer by granting the killer access to Dottie (Juno Temple), a sweet-natured, hazy-brained, but, most importantly, virginal beauty the script only vaguely insinuates Chris may have thought to one day have for himself.
Chris and Ansel are both low-level screw-ups and colossal underachievers of the most epic kind. Ansel's penchant for swilling beer while watching rebroadcasts of monster truck races are an indication of his passively complicit personality, and the inert role in circumstances that have allowed premeditated murder to become a viable option for a cash-strapped family, not to mention his obliviousness to Sharla's brazen front-door presentation and extra-curricular activities. Church is undoubtedly a smart actor who excels at playing dumb, and here he's at his most hilariously dimwitted. Meanwhile, Chris is the kind of get-rich-quick schemer whose aspirations never raised much above running a rabbit farm and watching television while getting stoned all day.
Surprisingly, most of the Smith family is fleshed out better than you'd expect from a flick that's as rapid-fire as 'Killer Joe' is. But the entire film really hinges on the performance of McConaughey, and, thankfully, he manages to deliver. The last two years have been banner ones for the actor, who has managed to pull himself from the precipice of a lifetime playing opposite Sarah Jessica Parker and Kate Hudson in the kind of bland, recycled romantic comedies he populated in the early-to-mid '00s. In 2011, it was his role as the ambitious D.A. Danny Buck, in Richard Linklater's 'Bernie,' that seemingly started the upswing, but it was his part in this year's surprise hit 'Magic Mike' that helped make the actor more relevant than he'd been in years.
Like 'Magic Mike' (and, really, all of McConaughey's most memorable characters), the role of Killer Joe Cooper is one that requires a kind of easygoing confidence, mixed with a certain diabolical charm that is at once as disarming as it is discomforting. Killer Joe's seductive cool, and deceptively placid exterior covers a pernicious, fiery rage that could very easily have been the end result of his 'Dazed and Confused' character, David Wooderson, making a few questionable life-choices.
And it's in the choices Killer Joe Cooper makes that offer the most memorable scenes where the film is merrily thumbing its nose at the sensibilities of the audience – and, obviously, the MPAA. As 'Killer Joe' settles into its Kentucky-fried blend of dark humor, sex, and noirish plot manipulations, it twice descends upon on rather extreme examples of the lengths Joe will go in order to get exactly what's coming to him – and in doing so, exposes, and possibly overexposes, the purposely incendiary nature of Letts' script, and Friedkin's willingness to (quite literally) direct said incendiaries onto the screen.
At first it seems as though, Letts and Friedkin are like Ansel, acting as passive facilitators of scenes that range from the menacingly exploitative, but carefully measured seduction of a supposedly naïve young woman, to the film's most infamous sight involving, of all things, a KFC drumstick, that knowingly crosses the line into egregious, baleful territory for a shot at notoriety. But really they're not passive at all, but rather quite complicit. Unlike most of the characters on screen, Friedkin and Letts have the courage and conviction to follow-through with what they've started – nasty business, though it may be. At once, 'Killer Joe' is that seductive peek behind the curtain of sleaze that keeps tabloids in business, but it's also a deftly paced thriller that does far more than merely court controversy.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Killer Joe' comes as a single Blu-ray disc in the normal keep case, but with a slipcover. Unlike most films that tout the 'Unrated' nature of its contents, this is actually one of the rare examples to actually mean it. The film is the director's cut, which earned it the notorious NC-17 rating. For those inclined, there is still an R-rated version – likely sans drumstick – that is available on DVD.
'Killer Joe' comes with a 1080p AVC-encoded transfer that, short of a few issues with a soft image and hot whites, is incredibly pristine and detailed. Naturally, as this is a noir film, there comes the expectation that the cinematography might take on a similarly sinister tone, to help the already palpable sense of portend become even more conspicuous. To that end, it's unclear whether or not the hot whites of certain scenes aren't a deliberate move on behalf of Friedkin and his cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel.
Of course, the film takes place in a charming small town in rural Texas, which, in addition to helping solidify many of the stereotypes depicted in Letts' writing, is also draped in an ungodly heat for much of the year, and the burning hot whites could very well be a depiction of that. In that regard, allowing for artistic license, the only real complaint would be a tendency for several scenes to fall into a kind of soft focus where the usual crispness of the image is rendered flat, and mostly free of texture and detail.
Thankfully, this only occurs a few times – and never in any of the key scenes mentioned above – so the rest of the time, 'Killer Joe' manages to look very good. Detail, especially in facial features and clothing or structural textures is quite strong and lifelike. Aspects like Thomas Haden Church's hilariously wispy and patched neckbeard, and the seemingly permanent grime of the Smith-family trailer stand out with outstanding clarity that adds real depth to the film's production standards and attention to specific character elements. Additionally, a great deal of the film takes place under the cover of darkness, and in poorly lit rooms. Here, black levels maintain excellent consistency, with near-perfect shadow delineation that manages to produce a crisp image even during something as potentially disastrous as a late night rainstorm.
A few misses don't derail a very nice looking disc that manages to take what was originally a play, and grant it some compelling filmic qualities that will differentiate it from all other renditions which have come before.
Again, based on a play, and consisting mostly of dialogue, 'Killer Joe' isn't necessarily the kind of picture requiring a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, but that doesn't mean the disc squanders the opportunity to have one. Several scenes call upon the lossless audio to completely enmesh the listener in the ambient noise of the characters' surroundings – whether they be a rain-soaked front yard, complete with yapping pit-bull named T-Bone, or a strip club with its cheesy, bass-filled songs that make poll-assisted gyrations seem so at home.
Still, the purpose of this mix is to make sure all of Letts' colorful, colloquial-laden dialogue comes out in the best possible way – and to no surprise, it does. The actors' lines all sound great, pushed mainly through the center channel, and sometimes the front right or left channel as well. Surround is rarely used to carry dialogue, but it works incredibly well during the aforementioned atmospheric scenes that work to ease the audience into the basic plot.
Other than the ambient music, LFE is used sparingly, but efficiently, to depict the unmistakable rumble of a motorcycle's engine, and to add some heft to the increasingly brutal acts of violence that propel the story into its unforgettable final few moments. As mentioned above, 'Killer Joe' isn't the kind of movie that necessarily required such a great-sounding audio mix, but it certainly makes good use of it.
As Friedkin mentions in the featurette, SXSW intro and the commentary, the intent of the film is elicit a strong response from the audience. He mentions that though he is not concerned which side of the fence the audience lands, he is concerned with the viewers experiencing some kind of emotional reaction from the events depicted on screen. In a way, that is Friedkin – and to a certain extent, Letts – admitting to the manipulative, and purposely shocking nature of 'Killer Joe,' but, really, that's the point of this satiric and often-times hilarious, or hilariously uncomfortable noir thriller. Curiosity at the film's unrated, or NC-17 content will likely drive many people to give this film a go. Shockingly, they'll likely find an incredibly well directed, well written and, most of all, well acted piece of cinema that just may go down as one of the top films of 2012. It's dark, violent, and at times, incredibly savage, but 'Killer Joe' isn't the kind of film you're likely to forget about after you've watched it. This one comes highly recommended.