It’s all about family in the end, so let’s talk about the family first. Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a young man with big, bad ideas and even bigger, badder debts to some very dangerous men. He’s cursed with a father so dumb that by comparison he assumes he must be a genius. That father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), seems perpetually cowed by life. Ansel likes long underwear and monster truck rallies and shitty beer. He has a beautiful little moment when he enters the greasy spoon where Sharla (Gina Gershon), his wife, works: while scanning the room he spots a beer bottle abandoned by a previous customer with a finger of suds remaining in the bottom, and he swigs it. Sharla is a piece of work, a slattern schemer on the smallest of scales but armed with a road-tested, outsized sex appeal. She enters the film bush-first—a first for non-pornographic American cinema?—and when the rest of her gradually makes it into the frame she’s all erect nipples, big hair in curlers and mascara seemingly applied by Tammy Faye Baker’s personal make-up artist. Much later she will be charged with a task involving a drumstick that really needs to be seen to be understood.
Then there’s Dottie (Juno Temple), still a nymphette at 20, a kewpie doll busting at the seams, with a savant-like air yet far more observant than she gets credit for. She is an object of unnerving fantasies for Chris and of strange desire for the final member of our makeshift clan. Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a detective and contract killer from Dallas. He comes to this Texas backwater to assassinate Chris and Dottie’s coke-dealing mother, Ansel’s first wife, a character never seen but much reviled. When it turns out that Chris can’t come up with payment for the matricidal hit, Joe takes Dottie as collateral. He’s not so much pure-lusty as entranced; he recognizes something in her. Like Humbert Humbert, Joe seems drawn to Dottie as a way to recapture the innocent bliss of pubescent sexual awakening. Ansel doesn’t mind any of this, as though pimping and parenting are second cousins. “Might just do her some good,” he muses.
The net ingredients for Killer Joe, the second of Pullitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts’ stage works to be adapted for the screen by William Friedkin (the first was Bug, a marvelous manic showcase for Michael Shannon), are about as lurid and tabloid-like as any going. The characters range from eerie to appalling to manifestations of some hot’n’sizzly kind of primal evil. And you can never take your eyes off of them and, provided you have the stomach for this grade of soot-black humour, they are funny as all hell. The sharply constructed story, which could be seen as a tract on the perils of inbreeding, feels like Sam Shepard channeling Jim Thompson, the direction is bracing and nasty, but also weirdly clean and to-the-point, the performances are across the board fully committed, emboldened by outrageousness, figures from Greek tragedy mired in the murk of the Southern gothic grotesque. Again, depending on your tastes, Killer Joe is either a must-see or must-avoid. Either way you’ll probably want to shower after. And steer clear of deep-fried chicken for a while.