The words “TEXAS REDNECK” jump off the poster for “Killer Joe,” William Friedkin’s neo noir/Southern Gothic black comedy written by playwright Tracy Letts and starring Matthew McConaughey as a hitman who’s also a cop.
The rednecks are the Smiths, a Southern family for whom sleaze and greed have long replaced Sunday grace. In the opening scene, Sharla (Gina Gershon) gets out of bed and answers the door; her stepson Chris (Emile Hirsch) is outside, rain drenched, having been kicked out of his place by his girlfriend. Does Sharla bother to throw on clothes before opening the door? Hell, no. This ain’t no Ritz Hotel after all.
Turns out, Chris is a drug dealer with a debt and needs cash fast. His solution is to murder his mother (mostly unseen in the movie) and cash in on her insurance policy. No one’s really that fond of the mother so the rest of the family – stepmom Sharla, Chris’ remarried father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and his sister Dottie (Juno Temple) – are all on board with his plan. They’re not the sharpest tools in the shed, but they know a job like this has to be done right so they hire a pro named Killer Joe (McConaughey). Need I say, things don’t go to plan?
On the plus side, “Killer Joe” is well shot, well directed and well acted – McConaughey is especially magnetic, outlining the character’s chilling darkness and letting us fill in the blanks. On the minus side, though, “Killer Joe” never feels like much of a noir or much of a comedy. The mood shifts border on the bipolar, culminating in a resolution that may have worked on stage but seems laughable (in a bad way) on film, not to mention ridiculously violent. By that time, though, we are nothing if not primed for blood to be shed.
This marks the second collaboration for Friedkin and Letts – their first was 2006’s “Bug” based on Letts’ play. The Chicago-based playwright’s other work includes the Pulitzer-prize winning “August: Osage County” (the movie version is set to start filming in September) as well as “Superior Donuts” and “Three Sisters.”
Given the talent that came together for “Killer Joe,” was I wrong to hope for meatier fare? Though tempting on the outside, this ain’t the blood-red burger I wanted on my plate.
“Killer Joe” opens today in LA.