“Killer Joe”: Uptown gets NC-17 with the wild new William Friedkin film

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Opening Friday, August 24 at the Lagoon Cinema is the hot ‘n’ heavy, NC-17-rated, Texas barnburner Killer Joe. It’s the first film in five years from Academy-Award-winning director William Freidkin (The ExorcistThe French Connection) and his second adaptation of a Tracy Letts play (the first being 2006’s underrated Bug). Killer Joe will definitely not be mistaken for any other film in 2012 and it could be one of the most talked-about films of the year. It’s an example of the offbeat and strange world of neo-noirs filled with plenty of unreliable characters, deception, violence, and sexual innuendos; and all of that is topped with one scene at a family dinner table, I presume the scene that earned the film its notorious NC-17 rating.

There are quite a few of surprises in Killer Joe; the first is a hilarious and frightening performance from Matthew McConaughey as a private detective moonlighting as a contract killer. From the first moment we see McConaughey’s Joe Cooper, one would almost think that we are being put on. Displaying his uncanny Southern drawl and, of course, his physically fit body, this cowboy-hat-wearing enforcer is not your usual typical hunky McConaughey character—his performance feels eerily similar to Frank Booth, Dennis Hopper’s psychopathic character in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. The other is the direction by Freidkin, who has had more misses than hits over the past 25 years but who really digs deep in this sadistic tale, earning some serious laughs and mayhem and never slowing up from start to finish.

Joe has been brought into the fold by local drug dealer Chris (a miscast Emile Hirsch) after getting into a bind with some local baddies; now Chris needs to pay them back or he is a dead man. He gets no help from his dimwitted father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church, who should win an award for portraying the worst father of the year) and stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon). Chris’s one bright idea is to have his mother snuffed out: her life insurance policy would pay him $50,000 and get him out of a jam. When Ansel agrees to this idea, they both get more than they bargained for: Joe usually only works by receiving the payment first, but makes an exception once he meets adolescent Dottie (Juno Temple in a star-making role), Chris’s younger sister, and decides to have her be a “retainer” in case the payment is not made.

When the job is completed there is a twist that’s not too surprising, but it really throws viewers for a loop as we witness Joe’s demeanor turn from professional suave killer into a widespread Molotov cocktail wild fire. Watching McConaughey lose his cool and letting his “aw shucks” persona take a backseat is fun and rewarding as he becomes a charismatic monster. He delves into Joe’s tendencies rather smoothly and you forget that this is an actor best known for showing off his ridiculously sculpted body. But almost when you think you will not see it, fear not, McConaughey shows quite a bit of it off in Killer Joe; in one scene, he answers the door completely naked and I wondered if that was McConaughey’s idea or if that scene was actually part of Letts’s original story.

There are some shortcomings in Killer Joe, including a coherent sense of time. How long of a period has the film takes place over? It could be a week, it could be a month. A third act, where everything goes haywire all at once, almost becomes cartoonish at times. Not to mention wasting a juicy dinner table set-up scene with perhaps the funniest line of the film when Chris says to Sharla, “Hey mom, your mascara is smeared.” It is also the third act that will leave audiences gasping from what can only be described as “deeply disturbing foreplay” and a questionable ending, which I found hit the spot while others groaned in agony.

Killer Joe will not be for everyone—the first red flag being its NC-17 rating—but it will be a delirious ride for some willing to step out of their comfort zone and give McConaughey some long-overdue props playing probably his most memorable role since stoner David Wooderson some 20 years ago in Dazed and Confused…where some viewers could be after watching Killer Joe.