Tennessee Williams meets Nabokov meets The Coen Brothers in this dark, cruel, funny and weirdly amiable hicksploitation chamber-piece directed by the inimitable William Friedkin.
By the very definition of the word inimitable, however, I hasten to add Friedkin certainly can stand alone without comparisons to others. The 76-year-old director — best known for his seminal works from an era bygone, such as The Exorcist and The French Connection — proves with Killer Joe that he's just as fresh, relevant and inventive as any on-trend 20-something director working today. What's more, he can run circles around most all of them.
Daring to compare again, I daresay Killer Joe is like Fargo in a Texas trailer park (sans wood-chipper, but with a scene that'll ensure you never look at fast-food fried chicken the same way ever again). The story's simple — dumb yuck falls into debt with some shady sorts, can't pay up, hires a hit-man, and winds up worse than he started off.
One of the chief components in what makes Killer Joe tick so well is that it's a collaboration between Friedkin and playwright Tracy Letts (the two did Bug together, which I feel is truly one of the best horror films of the last decade). The director also reteams with his longtime editor Darrin Navarro and legendary DP Caleb Deschanel (who also has Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter coming out in 3D this week).
Those working behind the scenes turn all the cogs and wheels which keep this potboiler roiling, but it's the stars who really wow. Mathew McConaughey turns in a laconic, predatory and certainly Oscar-worthy performance that's delightfully and darkly reminiscent of Robert Mitchum's best classic turns (Think: Powell in The Night of the Hunter, and Cady in Cape Fear). As the tawdry and trashy yet virginal teen pawn, Juno Temple channels Sue Lyon (Lolita), Carole Baker (Baby Doll), with just a dash of Brooke Shields (Pretty Baby) — but really, she brings herself and that's what makes her a genuinely arresting actress.
Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon and Thomas Haden Church play poor saps who are greedy, cunning and dumb at once, and yet oddly sympathetic. Beautifully wrought, human portrayals glimpsed through the swill of cheap beer and the haze of hand-rolled cigarettes in a highly cartoony setting. Bravo.
This insidious, intensely violent and sometimes sadistic thriller is not a horror film, but it's more horrific than all the Saws, Hostels, and Serbian Films put together… But that's not to say fans of torture-porn will find it too high-falutin'. In some ways, here and there, in moments and touches of tone, Killer Joe reminded me favorably of another family-style, chicken-lickin' horror film, The Devil's Rejects.
We are six months through 2012, and Killer Joe is so far the best I've seen in cinema disturbia. (Its nonfiction counterpart on my list is Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss.) It's been making the festival circuit (I was fortunate to see it with the director in attendance, at the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival), but will be in theaters on July 27 with an NC-17 rating.
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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson