Film Review: 'Killer Joe' visually vibrant, thematically dark

Matthew McConaughey is "Killer Joe."

LD Entertainment

Matthew McConaughey is "Killer Joe."

A misanthropic provocation directed by the sometimes-brilliant William Friedkin, "Killer Joe" is the first movie with an NC-17 rating to be booked into a Memphis theater since Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" in 2007.

According to the Classification and Rating Administration of the Motion Picture Association of America, "Lust, Caution" is inappropriate for young people because of "explicit sexuality," while "Killer Joe" has been restricted to adults because of "graphic, disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality."

When 22-year-old drug dealer Chris has his stash stolen by his mother, he has to come up with six thousand dollars quick or he's dead. ...

Rating: NC-17 for graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality

Length: 103 minutes

Released: July 27, 2012 NY

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Juno Temple

Director: William Friedkin

Writer: Tracy Letts

More info and showtimes »

The "brutality" is unspecified by the MPAA, but no doubt the reference is to a lengthy, degrading sequence involving Gina Gershon, Matthew McConaughey and a fried chicken drumstick that might cause Colonel Sanders to repurpose one of his famous buckets as a barf bag.

The key word in the MPAA's ruling, however, is not "brutality" but "disturbing." In fact, "Killer Joe" is not as brutal as "Saw 3D," the current "Dredd" or many other R-rated exercises in gory violence that have amused tykes and their accompanying irresponsible parents and/or guardians in recent years. But "Killer Joe" is definitely disturbing.

In 1980, Pauline Kael wrote that Friedkin's homosexual underground/serial killer movie "Cruising" was "like a dead rat in a Lucite block." The comment was meant as an insult, but in 2004 a sculpture by Damien Hirst of a dead tiger shark in a transparent cabinet of formaldehyde sold for a reported $12 million. So a dead rat in a Lucite block might be pretty valuable, after all.

How, then, to describe "Killer Joe"? I don't remember any rats, but the movie is barely under way before we see a black cat and also a chained pit bull named T-bone, four-footed inhabitants of the Texas trailer park where most of the movie's two-footed animals congregate.

These white-trash refugees from reality television include Emile Hirsch as Chris, an irresponsible drug dealer who owes big money to the mob; Thomas Haden Church as Chris' father, Ansel, introduced in dirty long underwear; fearless Gina Gershon as Ansel's wife, introduced in no underwear or in fact pants of any kind; and Juno Temple as Chris' sister, the appropriately named Dottie, a sexy Baby Doll virgin frequently dressed in short cut-offs and a tight tank top.

Dottie sleeps beside a dollhouse illuminated from within by an orange glow, like a Jack-o'-lantern. Her bed is often unoccupied, however: Dottie is both a sleepwalker and a sleeptalker, a conceit that leads nowhere in the plot but perhaps is intended to excuse the film's more lurid excesses as the products of some grindhouse habitué's bad dream. How else to explain Ansel's television, a magical device that displays images of discharging black-and-white guns, Monster Truck rallies and kung-fu fighting, and that promises both Christopher Lee in "Horror Hotel" and a "George Raft noir-a-thon"?

The title assassin arrives after the family decides to murder Dottie's "beat-up old alcoholic mother" to collect on her life insurance policy. To do the deed, they contact Joe Cooper, a black-hatted and black-gloved Dallas police detective who suggests a cowboy movie villain as imagined by Jim Thompson; he might be kin to Lou Ford, the maniac Texas sheriff protagonist of Thompson's novel, "The Killer Inside Me."

As played by a resurgent McConaughey (wonderful also in the recent "Magic Mike"), Cooper is a preening, spellbinding cock of the walk who deserves a less problematic showcase. He is at his most menacing at his most cool, controlled and soft-spoken; unfortunately, Friedkin and screenwriter Tracy Letts — working from his own stage play — can't resist letting Joe go psycho, so to speak. "Your eyes hurt," Dottie says, after she meets Joe; yours might, too, after you watch Joe go to town.

Friedkin, Letts and their cast and crew — the cinematographer is five-time Oscar nominee Caleb Deschanel, whose credits include "The Right Stuff," "The Natural" and "The Passion of the Christ" — bring a lot of prestige and industry validation to this visually vibrant, thematically dark film, which in an earlier decade might have opened at a decaying inner-city movie palace or drive-in rather than in an "art" house. (In Memphis, "Killer Joe" is exclusively at the Studio on the Square.)

Letts won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his 2007 play, "August: Osage County"; Friedkin won the Best Director Academy Award for his 1971 film, "The French Connection," and he was nominated again for "The Exorcist." That controversial movie also was filled with graphic "exploitation" content, but it was genuinely artful, and hopeful. The note of hope that brings "Killer Joe" to its abrupt conclusion is a cynical tease.

© 2012 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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