Killer Joe opens with a young man (Emile Hirsch) banging frantically on the door of a trailer home; it’s opened by his stepmother (Gina Gershon), who’s naked from the waist down and scoffs aloud at his suggestion that she cover herself. And that’s the movie in a nutshell: an invitation for you to be gleefully appalled by unapologetic sordidness. Rarely has such an abundance of talent, on both sides of the camera, been employed to such brutally impoverished ends. You’ll find people who claim it’s a black comedy, but how anybody could laugh at the impassioned ugliness on display here is a mystery to me.
Directed by William Friedkin and adapted by Tracy Letts from his own stage play—they previously collaborated on 2006’s Bug—Killer Joe stars Matthew McConaughey in the title role, that of a Texas police detective who moonlights as a hitman. Hired by a dimwitted trailer-trash family (Hirsch as the “mastermind,” Gershon and Thomas Haden Church as his parental accomplices) to off the matriarch for her life insurance, Joe balks when they can’t pay in advance, then decides he’ll accept the family’s pretty but even more dimwitted daughter, Dottie (Juno Temple), as his retainer. That everybody’s totally fine with this arrangement tells you what kind of credible moral universe the movie inhabits.
It’s the final, stagiest scene, which earned Killer Joe the dreaded NC-17, that folks tend to argue about—and there’s at least a faint glimmer of an idea there, at last, as Joe, wreaking outré violence with various food items, creates a grotesque parody of a traditional family. All the same, it’s just the apogee of Letts’ exercise in empty provocation, which keeps shoveling awfulness and idiocy in our faces and daring us to recoil. Wimp! Prig! Moralist! Credit the actors for committing themselves so wholeheartedly to their unsympathetic roles (though poor Temple can’t make any sense of Dottie, whose degree of cognitive function rises and falls as needed), and Friedkin for continuing to take risks after more than four decades in the business, but you can be pelted by garbage much more cheaply by standing downwind of an open Dumpster.