One of the rarest qualities of a Hollywood film is provocation — the capacity to shock us. Even horror movies have become predictable.
In 1973, director William Friedkin followed the pioneering gay drama The Boys in the Band and the Oscar-winning thriller The French Connection with arguably the most shocking film in Hollywood history: The Exorcist. Friedkin has never came close to that level of success again, but almost 40 years later, he's made a movie that's equally ripe for dissection, if not consumption.
Killer Joe based on the play by Tracy Letts, is a tasteless tour of the rural underclasss, yet the gun-toting guide is hard to ignore. He's Matthew McConaughey, continuing his midcareer diversion into dangerous territory (Magic Mike, Bernie). He's downright scary as the title character, a swaggering, leather-jacketed Texas cop who moonlights as a hired killer.
Joe is hired by dimwitted trailer trash Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and his debt-ridden son, Chris (Emile Hirsch), to exterminate Ansel's ex-wife and collect her life insurance. The supposed beneficiary is spacey pubescent daughter Dottie (Juno Temple); but the secret schemer in the background is Ansel's stripper squeeze, Sharla (Gina Gershon).
When Chris gambles away the down payment on the murder contract, Joe asks for collateral: Dottie, whom he woos like a rapist Romeo while the rest of the clan cowers outside the double-wide.
Killer Joe is one of the most repugnant parodies of small-town stupidity that you will ever see, and Friedkin amplifies the shrill obscenities with blaring cartoon and kung-fu footage from his art director's fever dreams.
Yet the smeared colors, vivid dialogue and fearlessly unsympathetic cast compel our attention until a ferocious finale of sexualized violence that merits the NC-17 rating (and will permanently curb your appetite for fried chicken).
Watching Killer Joe to the bitter end is like playing the Pick 6 lottery and getting three of the numbers right. You don't win anything, but you still think you're smarter than all those other idiots.