The family that slays together pays together in “Killer Joe,” a nasty little Texas noir that transfers Tracy Letts’ 1993 play from page to screen with generally gripping results before devolving into an over-the-top splatterfest. Aggressively sordid story benefits from a less stifling, more opened-up structure than William Friedkin’s previous Letts adaptation, “Bug,” but still makes the mistake of treating savage screen violence as its cinematic raison d’etre. While cast names could sweeten the pic’s theatrical life insurance policy, this hicksploitation dark comedy reps a tough sell indeed. Post-screening showers will be mandatory.
Speaking of showers: Lest viewers mistakenly assume they’re in for a nice evening’s entertainment, the action begins in a torrential downpour, with repeated in-your-face cutaways to dogs barking and snapping viciously in the rain. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, after all, as the Smith family is about to learn — or would be, if Letts’ screenplay treated them as capable of learning anything.
On this dark and stormy night, ne’er-do-well Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) turns up unannounced at the Dallas mobile home inhabited by his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), and his sluttish stepmom, Sharla (Gina Gershon). Recently kicked out of the house by his mother, Ansel’s unseen first wife, and in desperate need of cash after a botched drug deal, Chris proposes a “Double Indemnity”-like scheme in which they bump off the old hag, collect on her $50,000 life insurance policy and split it among themselves.
The man for the job, Chris suggests, is Joe Cooper (McConaughey), more commonly known as Killer Joe, a detective who moonlights as a professional hitman. Smooth, in control and aware of the risks involved in matricide, Joe lays out strict conditions for the transaction. But when deadbeat Chris is unable to come up with the $25,000 down payment, Joe agrees to accept collateral in the form of Chris’ younger sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). Like an unspoiled flower blooming out of the putrescent soil that is her family, Dottie is the very picture of sweet, virginal innocence, at least until Joe expertly deflowers her in a riveting scene that retains the play’s nudity and potent erotic charge.
“Killer Joe” was Letts’ first play, written more than a decade before his smash hit “August: Osage County,” and the text’s sneer of condescension toward its panoply of trailer-trash caricatures has not entirely abated here; note the dinner-table scene in which Joe registers his delight that they’re having tuna casserole. Yet the film doesn’t belabor even its cheaper punchlines, and the fleet, kinetic visual style devised by d.p. Caleb Deschanel and editor Darrin Navarro emphasizes narrative momentum over cruel comedy.
To be sure, Friedkin is clearly amused and appalled by his slovenly, foul-mouthed characters, with their off-the-charts levels of dysfunction and incompetence. But he directs them vigorously enough, pushing them past the realm of caricature to individuate themselves onscreen.
As the assassin who turns out to be the closest thing to a moral conscience in the picture, McConaughey pours on the suave Texas charm, perfectly offsetting the more barking tenor of the rest of the cast, namely Gershon and Hirsch, whose Chris seems the most prone of the bunch to bellow obnoxiously for no reason. Church locates a core of dignity within his clueless father figure, while Temple sweetly distinguishes herself as the family’s most prized and deceptively passive member.
While the Smiths’ trailer home serves roughly the same dramatic function as the motel room in “Bug” and has been outfitted with a similarly keen eye (Franco-Giacomo Carbone served as production designer on both films), Friedkin and Letts spend more time outdoors here, which serves the film and its less claustrophobia/paranoia-stoking intent. An effective chase sequence, with Chris on foot and his debt collectors on motorcycles, is staged with enough verve to show the director of “The French Connection” still knows his way around a good vehicular pursuit.
A pity, then, that “Killer Joe” should become such an unadulterated horror show in its final reels, pouring on the gore like ketchup and turning a fried chicken drumstick into a singularly degrading weapon. One can just about hear the filmmakers’ cackle of sick pleasure without necessarily sharing it, which in turn applies to the film as a whole — a mostly well-done adaptation that never quite convinces you it was worth doing well in the first place.