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Malice, Texas

Killer Joe (2012)

Skip Bolen/
2012 Seattle International Film Festival

William Friedkin's broiling film version of "Killer Joe" is uncompromising, uncompromised and alluringly grubby, catching all the black comedy laid out for the taking in Tracy Letts's play while mining a few new seams of Southern-fried dysfunction to boot. Collaborating again after "Bug" — which stared unswervingly into two unhappy people coming unglued in a closed room — they turn "Killer Joe" into a broader farce: a film prepared to admit that whole families can go so far off the rails that the only fair response is to laugh at the poor tortured bastards and learn.

Opened out marginally from the play's one-room setting, the film is faithful to the plot and all its nasty implications. In deep trouble with the local heavies, Chris (Emile Hirsch) schemes to have his own mother murdered in order to collect on an insurance policy. His father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) need little persuading, and neither, seemingly, does his not entirely clear-minded sister Dottie (Juno Temple). They hire Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an entirely unrespectable member of the Dallas police force with a profitable sideline in contract killing. Things do not go well.

If Mr. McConaughey's preening, sociopathic killer seems a revelation about the actor, that just proves how few people have seen "Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation." Towering a foot over Ms. Temple's frazzled blonde head, he plays Joe's attraction to the virginal Dottie as if desperate to touch her but not sure that she won't go off like a trembler fuse when he does. Joe's sexual shortcomings and fear of women are his defining traits, and the film faces them head-on — unlike Joe himself, who having been desperate to get the daughter naked is then unable to look at her. He eventually assaults the duplicitous stepmother with a fried chicken leg, his own God-given equipment apparently not up to the task. Mr. Letts set things up so that when the killer's potency or otherwise is finally clarified, Joe's head may explode.

"Killer Joe" swims in a slick of sex and failure, which might not sound like much of a recommendation. But Mr. Friedkin has clearly found a kindred spirit in Mr. Letts, another unsentimental judge of the awful corners people can paint themselves into. And the film looks terrific, shot by the sublime Caleb Deschanel in a tobacco-stained fug of hormones. It's a wicked piece of nastiness, a Southern melodrama with the brake lines cut. And it's this year's reminder that Ms. Gershon is fearless, should anyone have been unwise enough to forget.


Opens on June 29 in Britain and on July 27 in Manhattan.

Directed by William Friedkin; written by Tracy Letts, based on his play; director of photography, Caleb Deschanel; edited by Darrin Navarro; music by Tyler Bates; production design by Franco-Giacomo Carbone; costumes by Peggy Schnitzer; produced by Nicolas Chartier and Scott Einbinder; released by Entertainment One (Britain) and LD Entertainment (United States). Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. This film is rated 18 by B.B.F.C. and NC-17 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Matthew McConaughey (Killer Joe Cooper), Emile Hirsch (Chris Smith), Gina Gershon (Sharla Smith), Juno Temple (Dottie Smith) and Thomas Haden Church (Ansel Smith).


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