Though typically heavy-handed, Friedkin has several iconic 1970s films to his credit: The French Connection, The Exorcist, and The Boys in the Band. Each of those involves gripping physical and emotional tension delivered via superb acting. The excellent acting remains, but the adaptation by Tracy Letts of his 1993 play needs serious reconsideration. In addition to its pervasive misanthropy, Killer Joe exhibits a repulsive misogyny. Seldom have women been so thoroughly unattractive, or if cute in appearance, so insultingly presented. In addition, the smug condescension toward the trailer residents is contemptible.
The dispiriting story begins promisingly enough with an unnerving clicking sound—it will be revealed later as Joe’s lighter—followed by the first images—a violent, thunder and lightning storm punctuated by a ferocious, barking pit bull. Typical of darker fare, greed and revenge prompt a scheme to cash in on a $25,000 life insurance policy. The insured is Chris’s and Dottie’s mother and Ansel’s ex-wife. Twenty-ish Chris has sunk himself into debt with the local low life, Ansel harbors no affection for his ex, and even simple-minded, Lolita-like Dottie thinks matricide makes sense. They employ a local Dallas detective called Killer Joe, known as a gun for hire. There’s no way this will turn out well.
As Joe, Matthew McConaughey has found a new gear, and he’s a marvelous, menacing, heartless killer. He knows that quiet and calm are much more frightening than screaming and frantic, and McConaughey steals every scene. As Chris, Emile Hirsch is too shrill too often; Thomas Haden Church’s Ansel goes the other way to a dullard’s m.o. Gina Gershon, as Ansel’s new wife, gets the most thankless, distasteful role.
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel contributes his masterful photography in this lost cause. Darrin Navarro’s editing shines, and Tyler Bates’ music is effective. Unfortunately, Killer Joe offers an unpleasant experience.