Even the chained pit bull knows Joe Cooper is the wrong person with whom he should fuck. From the cowboy boots and second-skin jeans on up to the leather jacket and Stetson hat, Cooper is a black-clad angel of death masquerading as an instrument of social order, a Dallas police detective with a side hustle in killing. And as played by Matthew McConaughey, Cooper is a Jim Thompsonesque charismatic psychopath, Will Rogers touched by the sadistic grace of self-righteous Biblical rage. Pity not the soul who finds himself on the business end of Killer Joe’s wrath, for he hath earned the ire raining down on him. Cooper enters the movie that bears his name with the stylish flourish of a Western gunslinger or femme fatale, a teasing glance of a foot before the camera drinks in the full extent, and Joe expertly toys with the conflicting feelings of the admired hero and desired object for the movie’s entire 103-minute duration. It’s a body language that requires no verbal explanation: when Joe’s black boots first hit the mud of the trailer park where the men who require his service reside, the snarling dog, who unleashes bared-teeth hell whenever somebody is within sight, stands respectfully mute.
The 2006 psychological scorcher Bug must’ve reminded director William Friedkin that he just clicks with playwrights. The auteur behind The Exorcist and The French Connection learned the directing trade on-the-job in television and hit 1970s Hollywood about the same time as the boys club of film school grads invaded. And prior to those two box-office hits, Friedkin helmed a pair of close-quarters dramas adapted from the stage by their authors, 1970′s The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley and 1968′s The Birthday Party by the late Harold Pinter. Both end up trapping their characters in rooms, where such overpowering human emotions as fear, anger, and revenge slowly boil over. Tracy Letts followed a similar stratagem in his adaptation of his own play Bug, a paranoid descent into overpowering loneliness. Letts’ Killer Joe adds of huge dose of mordant humor and savage greed to these cul-de-sacs of human weaknesses.
Set in the working-class outskirts of Dallas (though shot in New Orleans), Joe‘s main action primarily takes place in the living room/kitchen of the double wide where Ansel Smith (Thomas Haden Church) lives with his second wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) and teenage daughter Dottie (Juno Temple). Ansel is a beer-swilling, dope-smoking mechanic so broken by life his threadbare masculinity is telegraphed by the patchwork beard that barely covers his weak jawline. Waitress Sharla might be able to put up with his cud-chewing, beer-money-mooching existence by keeping somebody else on the side. Dottie hasn’t entirely been kicked around by life yet, her mind still capable of head-in-the-clouds thoughts, her body as yet untarnished by men who don’t care what’s going on in her mind. They’re a pretty stereotypical version the American underclass, a contemporary take on the Clampetts before old Jed went a-shooting for some food and found the bubbling crude.
Ansel’s son Chris (Emile Hirsch, who can do skeezy in his sleep) might have a way for everybody to get a piece of their own Texas tea. Chris still lives with his mom, though he always seems to be doing something to send him seeking Ansel’s counsel. Now Chris has an idea that might help everybody out. Sure, he’s in dire need of cash because he owes some bad men some money. Sure, it might involve seeking the services of one Killer Joe. And, yes, since payment can’t be made in advance it might mean that Joe asks for Dottie as a retainer. But what’s a little homicide within the family when $50,000 is to be gained?
If Killer Joe and Oliver Stone’s Savages are any indication, more aging Hollywood directors need to be making down and dirty genre pictures. That’s not to say Joe is great. It’s messy and frequently traffics in conventions, but Friedkin and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel give the trailer-park noir a strong look. The movie opens with a Zippo lighter repeatedly opening and closing and ends with a finger moving toward a trigger; the movie feels like a lit fuse accelerating toward detonation—and Friedkin allows Letts’ gutter humor to sparkle throughout the excess. It’s also aggressively cruel, not just for the physical violence that peppers the story but for the bluntness of its sexual politics: This is a story about men using women’s bodies as currency, and throughout the women move like feed fish trapped in a tank of predatory libidos.
Most surprising of all, it’s anchored by a McConaughey performance that makes you want to see the guy do more total head cases—and he does it by playing off his usual screen presence. Since his breakout bits in Lone Star and Dazed and Confused, McConaughey has pretty much coasted through romantic leads as a smirking, shirtless charmer. Joe is also a man looking for love, but his version of it, and how he chooses to express it, is only unveiled to Dottie after he ritualistically removes his badge, cuffs, and sidearm, those symbols that tie him to a social order. Joe is a psycho of terrifying calm, the sort of fastidious gentleman who makes sure to remove his watch before he breaks a woman’s nose and turns a drumstick into an instrument of sexual degradation. It’s not the sort of performance that carbon offsets Failure to Launch‘s screen-acting pollution, but McConaughey shows enough range to suggest that he might have a few Richard Widmark-type roles in him if given half the chance.